South Sudan coup plot charges baseless, says Machar

South Sudan refugees More than 646,000 people have been displaced since the fighting began in mid-December

South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar has told the BBC that treason charges laid against him and some of his allies are "baseless".

Mr Machar, who is on the run, said he hoped mediators in the crisis would ensure the release of four of his imprisoned allies.

Analysts say the issue threatens a ceasefire signed last week.

Officials announced earlier that seven politicians were being charged over an alleged coup attempt in December.

It was initially a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Mr Machar on 15 December.

Since then, violence has spread into a full-scale conflict, with reports of ethnic killing.

Analysis

This release of several of the detainees will probably not remove an obstacle to the negotiations. The rebels want all of the men released - and so do the US and other countries mediating in this crisis. The idea is that all these heavyweight figures should take part in talks on resolving the political crisis that triggered this conflict.

Outside South Sudan, at least, President Salva Kiir has not been able to convince many people that his former deputy Riek Machar and the remaining detainees were involved in an attempted coup.

The families of the prisoners say they are concerned about their safety. Attention now focuses on President Kiir, who has hinted that after a trial the men could receive an amnesty.

However, it is difficult to see how court proceedings could be completed before the restart date for negotiations, in early February. That could force a delay.

Eleven officials, who are prominent political figures from a faction of the governing SPLM party, were arrested at the time of the alleged coup.

Four have been charged with treason and seven have now been released to the authorities in Kenya, where they appeared at a news conference on Wednesday with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

'Fragile ceasefire'

On Tuesday evening, South Sudan's justice minister said the treason charges would be brought against four men who were already in custody, plus three men on the run.

"I personally have not planned a coup and my colleagues who are under detention have not planned a coup with me so I see no reason why we would face such charges," Mr Machar told the BBC's Focus on Africa radio programme.

"The government should differentiate between the alleged coup and the current rebellion."

With peace talks expected to begin in February, Mr Machar said he hoped the regional mediators would "live [up] to their commitment" and free the four men still in detention.

"These comrades are important in the peace process," he said.

Mr Machar, who was sacked as Mr Kiir's deputy last July, has been on the run since 15 December and has refused to say where he is hiding.

Before Thursday's ceasefire, he said he had come under attack several times from South Sudanese and Ugandan soldiers, who are fighting alongside government forces.

Both sides say they are committed to the ceasefire, but there is still fighting in some areas, and the United Nations has described the situation as "fragile".

Aid groups say up to 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

The UN says more than 646,000 people have been displaced inside South Sudan and more than 123,400 people have fled to neighbouring countries.

The UN's aid chief Valerie Amos has wrapped up a three-day visit to the country with a trip to Malakal, where she said some people were afraid to return home despite the truce and had "completely lost faith'' and wanted to be relocated to other parts of South Sudan, or even out of the country.

map Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
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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