JUBA – Mediators pushed for a cease-fire in South Sudan as fighting raged Sunday for the last rebel-held town and the full extent of the destruction began to emerge.
Envoys from the United States and South Sudan’s neighbors met Saturday with Riek Machar, who heads the rebel forces that have been fighting government troops for the past month, the rebels said.
There were unconfirmed news reports that mediators would meet with President Salva Kiir on Monday.
Meanwhile, the full extent of the destruction wrought during recent battles began to emerge. An AFP photographer touring villages around Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, that government forces wrested back from rebels Friday, saw corpses lying in the streets and the thatched roofs of torched mud huts still smoldering.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, co-founded by Hollywood star George Clooney, released images detailing destruction to homes and markets in two towns, Mayom in oil-rich Unity state and Bor, the state capital of Jonglei, that government forces are trying to take back from rebels for the second time in a month.
“Evidence of atrocities against civilians should be collected and used for future prosecution for war crimes. There will be no peace if massive human rights abuses can be committed with no accountability,” Clooney said in a statement. “This time in South Sudan there needs to be an end to impunity.”
Fighting continued to rage Sunday around the flash point town of Bor, rebel military spokesman Gen. Lul Ruai Koang said. “We are still holding our positions, but the government forces are shelling them,” he said, adding he did not know if close combat was also taking place.
Mediations efforts rose a notch meanwhile.
“The American Special envoy to South Sudan and Sudan, Donald Booth together with (regional) mediators traveled to an undisclosed location in South Sudan to meet Dr. Riek Machar,” said a statement signed by Machar’s former press officer, Miyong G. Kuon.
The meeting with Machar, a former vice president and seasoned rebel fighter, comes as talks in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa appear to be stalling. Mediators for the East African regional bloc IGAD have been trying to incorporate the proposals of both sides into a draft ceasefire document.
Fighting erupted in South Sudan on Dec. 15. Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup. Machar in turn accused Kiir of using the coup accusation as an excuse to carry out a purge.
The biggest stumbling block in peace talks is still the 11 Machar sympathisers arrested by Kiir’s forces shortly after the fighting began. Machar’s side has insisted the detainees should be released to they can take part in the talks, while Kiir is equally adamant they should face justice.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council have both urged Kiir to free the 11 in order to kick-start the stalled talks. The U.N. secretary general also warned that evidence of widespread atrocities committed during the month-long conflict would be investigated, and the perpetrators “held accountable.”
According to the United Nations, the fighting has forced nearly 400,000 people to flee their homes and caused “very substantially in excess” of 1,000 dead. Of those forced to flee, some 350,000 are internally displaced and the remainder have fled into neighboring countries.
The International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, estimated as many as 10,000 people have been killed in the month of fighting in the world’s youngest nation, which won independence from Sudan only in 2011.
When the army recaptured Bentiu, the rebels insisted they had withdrawn to “save civilian lives” and that they would fight on and defend Bor, which lies 200 km north of the capital, Juba. A rebel military spokesman also claimed antigovernment forces still controlled vital oil infrastructure near Bentiu.
South Sudan’s crude production, a key source of income for the impoverished nation, has dropped by around a fifth since the fighting began.
Fighting began as clashes within army units, but spread rapidly with government troops fighting huge battles against breakaway soldiers and ethnic militiamen loosely allied to Machar. The conflict has also sparked a sharp upsurge in ethnic violence between members of Kiir’s majority Dinka tribe and Machar’s Nuer community.