ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — South Sudan’s government and rebels signed a cease-fire deal Thursday that leaders hope will put a pause to five weeks of warfare that has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians.
The peace deal represents the first real progress since political friction turned violent Dec. 15, fueling countrywide battles with ethnic overtones. But questions were immediately raised about whether all fighters in South Sudan would abide by the agreement, and how long others would follow it.
The military spokesman for South Sudan cautioned that a group of rebel fighters from the former vice-president’s Nuer ethnic group — thousands of armed youths known as the “White Army” — may not want peace.
“Riek Machar has been using that force to fight the SPLA, so we have to see what will happen,” said Col. Philip Aguer, using the acronym for South Sudan’s military.
“War is not good for anybody, especially war fought for power of a political position,” Aguer continued. “Civilians, innocents are dying, so it is good for the people of South Sudan to have peace.”
Nhail Deng Nhail, the head of South Sudan’s negotiating team, said his side is worried that since many on the rebel side are civilians who took up arms, “it may become difficult to follow the cease-fire since they are not militarily disciplined.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney welcomed the deal — technically called a cessation of hostilities — and described it as a “first critical step in ending the violence” and building a sustainable peace. The U.S. expects both parties to implement the agreement fully and swiftly and move toward an inclusive dialogue, he said.
“The United States will remain a steady partner to those who choose the path of peace” and work toward a more democratic, unified South Sudan, Carney said.
Talks are scheduled to resume in early February, but a sore point between the sides remains. Machar’s side has been pushing to get 11 top former government leaders released from prison. President Salva Kiir has said the 11 will be subjected to South Sudan’s judicial process.
The top negotiator for Machar’s side, Taban Deng Gai, a general in South Sudan’s army before he defected, said late Thursday that talks would not continue if the government does not release the 11 detainees. South Sudan’s information minister, Michael Makuel Lueth, said the detainee issue has nothing to do with the cessation of hostilities agreement.
The United States helped broker talks that saw South Sudan end its civil war with Sudan in 2005 and then gain independence in 2011. Tepid progress by the world’s newest country — and one of the globe’s poorest — has been turned upside down.
An estimated half million residents have fled their homes because of the fighting, which has often pitted Kiir’s Dinka-led government and military against Nuer fighters backing Machar.
The UN has warned of atrocities committed by both sides on the battlefield.