South Sudan: Thousands of pro-rebel youths 'march on Bor'

Riek Machar has given a cautious response to government proposals to end hostilities, as Peter Biles reports

Thousands of youths loyal to South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar are marching on the strategic town of Bor, according to government sources.

Government troops are currently in control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state they had taken from the rebels.

The government has offered to cease hostilities, but an army spokesman told the BBC that its forces were still battling over oilfields in the north.

At least 1,000 people have died since fighting broke out earlier this month.

More than 121,600 are believed to have fled their homes.

What began as a power struggle between Mr Machar and President Salva Kiir has taken on overtones of a tribal conflict. The Dinka, to which Mr Kiir belongs, are pitted against the Nuer, from which Mr Machar hails.

'Wild card'

Analysis

The White Army is a name that inspires fear in South Sudan.

This loose grouping of armed youth from the Nuer ethnic group was at least partly responsible for the 1991 Bor massacre, in which at least 2,000 people were killed. Then, the White Army fought alongside Riek Machar, who had split away from the main southern Sudanese rebel group fighting Khartoum.

In 2011 and 2012 a new incarnation of the White Army went on the rampage, killing hundreds of civilians from the Murle ethnic group. At the time, Mr Machar was vice president - and although he travelled to meet them, he was unable to stop their advance.

Now the South Sudanese government says thousands of White Army members are marching on Bor - under Mr Machar's command. This is an explosive claim - particularly as Mr Machar is under international pressure to stop fighting and begin negotiations by the end of the year.

Tens of thousands of civilians have sought refuge in UN camps and reinforcements have been arriving to give them extra protection.

Joe Contreras, a spokesman for the UN Mission in South Sudan, told the BBC World Service Newshour programme that the reported advance of the armed youths was a dangerous development.

"One of the reasons why it is such a worrying development... is that they do not have a military background or the discipline that you would associate with military who have been fighting under the banner of the former vice-president since this crisis began," he said.

"So in effect they're kind of a wild card factor, though their sympathies appear to lie with the former vice-president."

He added there was no evidence they were acting on direct orders from Mr Machar.

The youths now believed to be marching on the town are said to be part of an ethnic Nuer militia known as the White Army, because of the white ash they put on their skin to protect them from insects.

Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth earlier told the Associated Press that an estimated 25,000 people from the same tribe as Mr Machar were taking part.

"He has decided to mobilise the youth in the name of his tribe," Mr Lueth was quoted as saying.

But Moses Ruai Lat, a spokesman for the rebels, told AFP news agency this was not the case, but that they were simply regular soldiers turning their back on the government.

The BBC's James Copnall in Juba says it is unclear exactly how many people are heading towards Bor and who they are.

The UN is planning aerial reconnaissance flights on Sunday and the results of their search are vitally important, our correspondent adds.

'No preconditions'

Mr Machar was deputy president until Mr Kiir sacked him in July.

Earlier this month fighting broke out between rival army factions after Mr Kiir accused Mr Machar of trying to unseat him in a coup.

Mr Machar told the BBC on Friday that his forces were in control of the whole of the states of Jonglei and Unity, apart from the town of Bor.

A child is examined by two doctors at the Juba Military Hospital Aid agencies say the humanitarian need created by the conflict is increasing

He said he had a negotiating team ready but any ceasefire had to be serious, credible and properly monitored.

He called for the release of all 11 detainees accused of being co-conspirators in the coup plan, a key rebel condition for any negotiations.

Mr Kiir's spokesman Ateny Wek Ateng told the BBC that Mr Kiir would not accept any preconditions for a ceasefire.

"If Machar said he will not cease the hostilities, then he will of course be attacking our positions and our soldiers have the right to defend themselves," Mr Wek Ateng said.

He added that Mr Kiir had tried to avoid the conflict taking over tribal overtones, and blamed Mr Machar for the increased tension between the two ethnic groups.

BBC map
News graphic showing the ethnic groups of South Sudan Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Map showing the location of oil fields in South Sudan Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north
Map showing the geography of South Sudan The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Map showing access to water in South Sudan After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Map showing education levels in South Sudan Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Map showing food insecurity rates in South Sudan Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight - this compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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