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South Sudan rebel leader returns to capital

Published 26/04/2016

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the civil war and more than two million have been forced to flee their homes
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the civil war and more than two million have been forced to flee their homes

South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar has returned to the capital Juba to become vice president under a peace deal aimed at ending two-and-a-half years of civil war.

Mr Machar briefly addressed the press after landing at Juba International Airport, where doves were released and a welcoming crowd waited.

He then drove to the presidential palace to be sworn in as First Vice President to President Salva Kiir, under the agreement signed eight months ago amid intense international pressure.

Mr Machar flew in from Gambella, Ethiopia, just across the border from his rebel headquarters in South Sudan.

"I'm happy to be back," he told reporters at the airport.

"The war was vicious. We have lost a lot of people in it and we need to bring out people together so that they can unite, reconcile, heal the wounds, the mental wounds that they have.

"There will be challenges ahead, there will be obstacles but as long as there is political will we can overcome all these challenges, all these obstacles."

Government and rebel soldiers stood silently side by side at the airport. Mr Kiir did not come to the airport for Mr Machar's return.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the civil war and more than two million have been forced to flee their homes.

The August peace deal calls for a two-year transitional government of ministers and parliamentarians from the two sides before new elections.

Mr Machar's return is one of the biggest steps towards realising the peace deal meant to end the fighting, but should not be met with "huge optimism", cautioned Jacob Chol, dean of Juba University's political science department.

"It doesn't mean that the implementation of the peace deal is fully on board or fully implemented, because a lot of issues are yet to be sorted out in the agreement," he said.

Many people in South Sudan worry that Mr Machar's presence will only return the bitterly divided country to its pre-war status quo.

The war started when fighting began in Juba between Dinka and Nuer soldiers, before government troops massacred Nuer citizens in the city, sparking revenge attacks against Dinka elsewhere in the country, according to an African Union commission of inquiry.

Mr Machar, an ethnic Nuer, was Mr Kiir's vice president before the war. Mr Kiir, a Dinka, fired him in mid-2013.

He then vowed to run against Mr Kiir for the presidency, sparking a chain of events that led to the outbreak of conflict in December that year which ripped open ethnic hatred and pushed parts of the country to the edge of famine as civilians fled their fields to hide in forests and swamps.

Now the transitional government must end the fighting, resettle millions of displaced, stabilise the country's collapsing economy, reintegrate the split army, and co-operate with a court to be set up by the African Union to try perpetrators of atrocities.

Both men's troops are accused of horrific human rights abuses, including gang rape and murder of civilians along ethnic lines.

A UN panel of experts said Mr Kiir and Mr Machar themselves bear command responsibility for troops who allegedly committed crimes.

Tim Morris, British ambassador to South Sudan, said: "Those shown to be responsible for particularly outrageous atrocities should be brought to justice, but it is also very important that truth is established in a much broader sense.

"Reconciliation is not simply an event, this is something which will take generations."

There are serious doubts that the transitional government can do all that is asked of it due to deep mistrust between the two sides.

Mr Machar's return was repeatedly delayed over the last week as the two sides made last-minute excuses and accusations.

Despite the peace deal, fighting has continued with some of the worst atrocities taking place after the signing last August.

On Monday night, clashes broke out in the government-controlled town of Bentiu.

Rocket propelled grenades and bullets landed inside a UN base where more than 100,000 people are sheltering, injuring a child, according to the UN and aid workers.

Nearly 200,000 mostly Nuer people shelter in overcrowded UN bases around the country which have repeatedly come under deadly attack by soldiers.

The residents of a camp in Juba where 28,000 Nuer shelter will not go home until the peace deal is fully implemented including provisions to take suspects of crimes to court, camp leader Thod Mayei said.

"We cannot go just randomly," he said. "We need to know the leaders of South Sudan can show us that this peace is a real peace."

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