South Sudan’s Out-of-Control Civil War

The new fighting is tearing the young country apart. Yet the leaders of the two factions—the president and vice president—say they’re powerless to stop it.

Phillip Dhil/EPA

It was a peace that few expected to last, but as South Sudan celebrated its five-year anniversary for independence this weekend, violence came quicker and more ferociously than nearly anyone imagined.

On Monday the capital city of Juba experienced running street battles between government and opposition armies, witnesses told The Daily Beast. It caused around 7,000 South Sudanese to flee to the nearby UN-protected camp, the United Nations said.

South Sudan signed a peace deal in August after fighting broke out in December 2013. In April, President Salvia Kiir formed a unity government with opposition leader Riek Machar. Under the peace deal, troops from both armies were stationed in the capital city, a formula which proved to be toxic on Sunday.

Fighting between both the government and rebel armies began in Juba on Thursday and Friday, but Sunday’s brutality was on another scale altogether. It was impossible to gauge how many casualties there were because the fighting was ongoing.

“We have been attacked by [government] forces in the morning around 8 o’clock until now. It is still going on,” said Gen. James Koang, a top opposition military commander in an interview Sunday afternoon. “They bombed Riek Machar's position, his residence,” Koang said, and added that Machar survived the attack.

“We went through heavy bombardments by Pres Kiir helicopters. This tells that our partner is not interested in peace” a Twitter account that appears to be run by Machar said.

The fighting appeared to be most intense around a United Nations complex in Juba, which holds more than 25,000 South Sudanese seeking protection. U.N sources inside the base said soldiers of an unknown affiliation entered at one point, but apparently left and did not target officials. It did not appear that UN peacekeepers, mandated to use force to protect civilians, responded.

“Both UN camps in Juba have sustained impacts from small arms and heavy weapons fire,” said Ellen Loj, head of the UN in South Sudan, in an audio statement. At least two Chinese U.N. peacekeepers have died in the fighting.

In the early part of Sunday, security sources described gains made by the opposition forces. But in the afternoon, the government troops apparently regrouped, and took back momentum. On Monday, there were reports of fighting and troop movements across the country.

Caught in the middle were thousands of South Sudanese, some of whom fled with what belongings they had.

Confusion reigned between political and military leaders of both sides. At a press conference with journalists in Juba around midday, top opposition politician Taban Deng pleaded with both armies to respect a ceasefire. Directly contradicting that statement immediately after, the government spokesperson Michael Makwei said that no ceasefire had been announced.

On Monday, President Kiir issued a cessation to hostilities around 6 ‘clock. Witnesses said that fighting continued hours later, and it appeared that the government did not have full control of its forces.

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“Any soldier or any member of the regular forces that will be found loitering about with his rifle without reporting to his unit will be arrested” said Minister for Information Michael Makwei on state television.

"Both the SPLA [Kiir] and the IO [Machar] leadership have used the lack of control over their troops to explain their atrocities,” says said Clemence Pinaud at Indiana University, an expert on South Sudan. “Yet there are different ways to control or unleash troops. Instigating hatred of a particular ethnic group amongst troops while unleashing them resembles more organized chaos that benefits armed leaders in every way, than complete lack of control. What it means for Juba residents though, is that reprisals against them have already started."

Since civil war broke out in December 2013, the United States government has essentially blocked actions to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan at the United Nations Security Council, diplomats, experts, and members of congress say.

Some of the weapons used in Sunday’s attack, like the MI-24 helicopters that were apparently used to bomb Machar’s house, probably wouldn’t have been available if there were an arms embargo on the country, a weapons expert told The Daily Beast. Those helicopters, sources said, continued to fly on Monday.

“Even if sanctions were done after delivery of the helicopters, it would have reduced the risk of resupply and the Ukrainians servicing them would have had to withdraw,” said Luuk van de Vondervoort, a former member of a UN panel of experts. “In all likelihood the MI-24 helicopters couldn’t have flown if the embargo was adopted even two months ago.”

On Monday, Secretary General of the U.N. Ban Ki-moon took the unusual step of requesting an “immediate arms embargo on South Sudan.”

“It is inaccurate to suggest that the U.S. government is blocking an arms embargo,” wrote Mignon Cardenty, a spokesperson in the office for the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan in an email.

When the Daily Beast followed up and asked if the United States supported an arms embargo on South Sudan, Cardenty refused to answer.

“We have called for an arms embargo, we think that this [violence] absolutely underlines the need for that and we are prepared to look at any measures that are necessary in order to stop this violence,” Britain’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Peter Wilson, told Reuters after an emergency meeting at the U.N. Security Council.

“I have been a supporter for the arms embargo, particularly for the larger arms. There is already plenty of guns there,” said Rep. Michael Capuano, chair of the Congressional Caucus on Sudan and South Sudan. “Helicopters, armored vehicles — they really change the face of the conflict for the worst.”