South Sudan’s government won’t bow to international pressure and immediately release politicians detained after an alleged attempted coup last month, Information Minister Michael Makuei said.
“We thought the international community would come in support of us,” Makuei told reporters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where talks are taking place to end a three-week-old conflict in the neighboring African country. “There is no way we can be asked to release people who are arrested and charged.” Freeing the detainees would set a “bad precedent.”
The U.S. and the European Union said yesterday that 11 politicians imprisoned in South Sudan should be freed to help warring parties reach a ceasefire and a political solution. The releases should not be a “pre-condition” for negotiations being mediated by East African nations, Makuei said. Conflict broke out on Dec. 15 after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup. Violence spread swiftly, pitting members of Salva’s ethnic Dinka community against Machar’s Nuer group. “Thousands” of people have died and about 200,000 have been displaced, according to United Nations estimates.
The fighting must stop for the government to move on to negotiations on a monitored ceasefire, Makuei said. “Without a cessation of hostilities, ultimately it becomes difficult for us to continue talking,” he said. According to rebel spokesman Hussein Mar Nyuot, the two parties agreed to direct talks yesterday. Discussions may start today, he said in an interview.
Machar and his allies want the release of all charged with coup-plotting by Kiir’s government and for those individuals to be given freedom of movement, Taban Deng Gai, head of the negotiating team for the rebels, said yesterday.
The politicians are “languishing in jail not for any crimes they’ve committed, but for the reason of voicing their political opinion,” Gai said.
Those detained include Pagan Amum, former secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.
Efforts to mediate a truce are being led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a group of eight East African nations including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. IGAD wants South Sudan to go the “extra mile” in its treatment of the detainees so they can take part in talks, Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, said today.
“One of the things that was suggested was for the South Sudanese government to expedite the process, bail them out and transfer them to IGAD,” he said by phone. “IGAD will then have the responsibility to transfer them to a court of law so they can face due process.”
South Sudan has “no problem” with IGAD’s approach in general on the issue of the detainees, Makuei said.
“The IGAD partners are the ones who are trying to set things right,” Makuei said. It is “out of the question” to investigate the “massive crimes” within days and then release the prisoners, he said, adding that he wasn’t aware of IGAD’s suggestion to take the detainees into its custody.
Rebel claims of Ugandan involvement in fighting are false, Makuei said. The neighboring country’s forces should withdraw from the country, Gai said yesterday. Rebels claim the Ugandan forces are supporting Kiir’s troops.
The steps toward a ceasefire come as fighting continues in South Sudan. The military situation is “normal” today, with rebels likely to launch attacks, Makuei said, without providing further details.
The UN has urged both sides to avoid civilian casualties, and called on donors to help aid agencies raise $166 million for humanitarian programs.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Jerusalem today that the start of direct talks was a “very important step” and urged officials to approach them with “resolve.”
South Sudan seceded from neighboring Sudan in July 2011, taking three-quarters of the formerly united country’s crude output with it. Oil exports provide more than 95 percent of government revenue. Machar was one of the leaders of a faction that split from other southern rebels during decades of civil war with the government in Khartoum.
Landlocked South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data. It has been exporting all of its crude –- about 245,000 barrels a day — through pipelines across Sudan. The fighting has cut production to about 200,000 barrels daily.