South Sudan rebel leader flees country, helped by UN peacekeepers
South Sudan’s rebel leader has fled the country and was expected to emerge after weeks in hiding to speak to the press, a spokesman said on Thursday, as the United Nations announced it had assisted him on part of his journey.
The UN involvement was likely to further anger a South Sudanese government that has accused the world body of interfering in its affairs after renewed fighting last month veered the country back toward civil war.
Riek Machar crossed the border into neighbouring Congo and was airlifted to the capital, Kinshasa, spokesman Mabior Garang said, adding that Machar was planning to travel to Ethiopia soon.
The UN indicated that Machar had been in danger.
It learned on Wednesday that Machar was in Congo, near the South Sudan border, and arranged on humanitarian grounds for the UN peacekeeping force there to airlift him, his wife and 10 others, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said. He wouldn’t say where they were on Thursday, only that they were under Congolese authorities.
“We have been providing him with whatever medical assistance he needs,” Haq said, without giving details. “He needed to be moved safely from one spot to another,” he added.
Machar had returned to South Sudan in April in a major step toward realising a peace deal reached in August 2015 under intense international pressure. He immediately took up the vice president post under President Salva Kiir that he’d had before the civil war. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, called his return “the best hope that South Sudan has had in a very long time”.
But tensions remained as the recently warring camps were pushed to work together under the peace deal.
In early July, dozens of Machar’s bodyguards were shot dead after gunfire erupted outside the presidential compound where Machar was meeting with Kiir. Machar and fighters supporting him left the city, putting the country’s peace deal in limbo. Hundreds of civilians died in the fighting.
A posting by Machar’s spokesman on Facebook said the rebel leader left South Sudan after a “botched attempt to assassinate” him. It did not give details.
In his absence, Machar last month was replaced as first vice president after a disputed change of leadership in his party. He has said he would not return to Juba until a regional force is deployed in the capital to help restore calm.
Last week, the UN Security Council voted to send 4,000 regional peacekeepers to Juba. The government has not yet accepted the force, saying that deploying it without South Sudan’s approval would be a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013, and the peace deal has been violated repeatedly by fighting. Both sides in the fighting have been accused of human rights abuses.