South Sudan: UN concerned by 'wildcard' White Army

South Sudanese soldier loyal to President Salva Kiir talks to UN soldiers from South Korea at Bor airport, 25 December 2013
Image caption South Korean soldiers are stationed in Bor, south of Juba, as part of the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS)

The UN has expressed concern about thousands of South Sudanese youths - loyal to rebel leader Riek Machar - approaching the strategic town of Bor.

Armed with machetes and sticks, the "wildcard" group does not have military training, a UN spokesman told the BBC.

However, the government information minister later said local negotiators had succeeded in persuading the group to disband.

At least 1,000 people have died in South Sudan since fighting began.

More than 121,600 are believed to have fled their homes in the conflict, which started on 15 December.

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

The government has offered a ceasefire, but the army says its forces are still battling over oilfields in the north.

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


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

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Media captionThe BBC's James Copnall says aid workers fear a humanitarian crisis in S Sudan

The group thought to have been marching on the town are 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.

A UN surveillance flight had located them 50 km north-east of Bor, the UN spokesman, Joe Contreras, added.

The White Army seems sympathetic to Mr Machar, but does not appear to be acting on his direct orders, said Mr Contreras, a spokesman for the UN Mission in South Sudan.

He described the group as "a volatile and unpredictable ingredient" to the unrest in South Sudan.

However, a spokesman for the rebels, quoted by the AFP news agency, denied Mr Machar was "mobilising his tribe" and said they were regular soldiers who had rejected the government.

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

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

Fighting broke out two weeks ago between rival army factions after Mr Kiir accused Mr Machar of trying to unseat him in a coup.

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

Allegations that he was mobilising forces to march on Bor cast a shadow over peace efforts led by regional leaders.

On Friday, Mr Machar said he had a negotiating team ready but any ceasefire had to be credible, properly monitored and preceded by the release of 11 detainees accused of being co-conspirators in the coup plan.

Mr Kiir has refused to accept any preconditions for a ceasefire.

Image caption 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.
Image caption 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
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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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