East African nations are to move in to defeat South Sudanese rebel leader, Riek Machar, if he rejected a ceasefire offer, threatening to turn an outburst of ethnic fighting into a regional conflict, Uganda’s president, President Yoweri Museveni, has said.
Hours after Museveni’s ultimatum, rebels and the feared “White Army” militia clashed against government troops just outside Jonglei state capital Bor, officials said.
They said the government side was braced for a “full scale” attack on the town, seized by rebels for several days earlier this month and the site of an ethnic massacre in 1991. Thousands of civilians had fled for the surrounding swamps.
Two weeks of clashes have already killed at least 1,000 people in the world’s newest nation, unnerved oil markets and raised fears of a civil war in a region ravaged by fighting in Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We gave Riek Machar four days to respond (to the ceasefire offer) and if he doesn’t we shall have to go for him, all of us,” Museveni told reporters in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, referring to a December 31 deadline.
Asked what that meant, Museveni said: “to defeat him”.
He did not spell out whether South Sudan’s neighbors had actually agreed to send troops to join the conflict that erupted in Juba on December 15.
But his words underlined the scale of regional concern over the fighting that has spread to South Sudan’s oil-producing states – often along ethnic lines, between Machar’s group, the Nuer, and President Salva Kiir’s Dinka.
Past conflicts in South Sudan have sent refugees pouring over its borders, and spurred on rebels in neighbouring countries, including the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
There was no immediate confirmation of the pact to take on Machar from other East African countries, who have been trying to mediate and last week gave the sides until December 31 to lay down their weapons.
Kenya’s presidential spokesman, Manoah Esipisu, said it would be inappropriate to comment until the deadline has passed. Machar himself did not respond to calls.
Information Minister Michael Makuei said the rebels want to take Bor ahead of the deadline so Machar “can talk from a position of strength” once peace talks start.
“This is why he has been intransigent,” Makuei said.