JUBA, South Sudan — Fighting continued today in South Sudan’s city of Bor, a government official said, describing it as “a war zone” where the army and rebels are battling even as both sides have committed to peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia.
Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, is the center of ethnically-based violence stemming from the political rivalry between President Salva Kiir and ousted Vice President Riek Machar, the rebel leader accused of mounting a failed coup attempt. More than 1,000 people have been killed in the violence, according to the United Nations, but the fighting in Bor is expected to increase the number of fatalities.
“There is fighting going on in Bor. It’s a war zone,” said Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin of the city that in order to stay in charge of the town that is just 75 miles from the national capital of Juba.
Government troops pulled out of parts of Bor because they were concerned about having to kill the “young boys” who fill the ranks of the rebels, said one analyst.
“The (South Sudanese military) was told to withdraw,” Edmund Yakani, the executive director of the Juba-based group Community Empowerment for Progress, said, citing the accounts of contacts in Bor. “They communicated that these are young boys and we are killing them like nothing.”
Delegates from both sides are expected to arrive in Ethiopia later today for the start of peace talks.
In Bor, government troops face renegade forces allied with a pro-Machar tribal militia known as the “White Army,” so called because its young members of the Nuer tribe smear their faces with ash to keep insects away.
The scale of the violence in Bor has overwhelmed humanitarian workers, and there are growing concerns the situation could deteriorate further if the warring factions do not strike a cease-fire deal soon.
“Even with the tremendous efforts made by health partners, sanitation conditions are still inadequate largely due to the large number of people sheltering in United Nations bases which have insufficient space to house these numbers,” said Abdi Aden Mohammed, the World Health Organization’s representative in South Sudan. “Coupled with poor water and sanitation conditions, overcrowding in the camps may create conditions ripe for disease outbreaks.”
Although Kiir insists the fighting was sparked by a coup attempt mounted by soldiers loyal to Machar, this account has been disputed by some officials of the ruling party who say violence broke out when presidential guards from Kiir’s majority Dinka tribe tried to disarm guards from the Nuer ethnic group of Machar.
South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension and a power struggle within the ruling party that escalated after Kiir dismissed Machar as his vice president earlier this year. Machar has criticized Kiir as a dictator and says he will contest the 2015 presidential election.
The United Nations, South Sudan’s government and other analysts say the dispute is political at its heart, but has since taken on ethnic dimensions. The fighting has displaced up to 180,000 people, according to the U.N.