The fate of 11 political detainees in South Sudan has acquired central importance in peace talks to defuse the violence that has splintered the South Sudanese army and led to the death of thousands and the displacement of at least 200,000 civilians.
Violence erupted three weeks ago after a protracted power struggle between South Sudan President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar. Mr. Machar has fled Juba and mobilised sections of the army against Mr. Kir’s government.
Peace talks between the two sides appeared imperilled as mediators from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) shuttled between the South Sudanese capital at Juba and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the venue for the talks.
“These people have to be released from jail,” said Mabior Garang, spokesperson for the opposition delegation said in Addis Ababa, “They have been in jail for a long time without charge in violation of their civil rights and liberties.”
In Juba, President Salva Kiir rejected calls to release the prisoners and asked that talks be shifted to the South Sudanese capital, according to Bloomberg news.
Opposition spokesperson Mr. Garang refused to comment on whether his team would step away from the talks if the detainees were not released.
“I cannot comment as President Kiir’s position has not been communicated to our delegation,” he said.
A spokesperson for the opposition forces said rebel forces had successfully repelled government attempts to recapture the strategic town of Bor and killed over 200 government soldiers including senior officers.
“Bor is still in our hands,” said Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang, “We are on defensive positions, the government is on an offensive position.” Gen. Koang said between four and five thousand soldiers had defected from the army and joined the rebels.
‘India for mediation’
“The Indian government is supporting the IGAD led mediation between the two parties,” said Sandeep Kumar, Joint Secretary for West Asia and North Africa at the Ministry of External Affairs, in an interview in Addis Ababa,
“We are hopeful that an agreement can be reached and implement on the ground.”
Speaking upon his return from a three day visit to Juba, Mr. Kumar said the Indian consulate in Juba would continue to function and provide support to the approximately 1000 Indian citizens in South Sudan.
Indian state-owned ONGC-Videsh had temporarily ceased production at its oil well in South Sudan but would soon resume, Mr. Kumar said.
Last year, India’s Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Mr. P.S. Raghavan visited Juba to discuss India’s development projects aimed at developing infrastructure in health, electrification, solar energy and solar management.
President Salva Kiir was expected to visit India in August last year, but cancelled his trip due to the brewing political unrest that has culminated in the current crisis.
Opposition has demanded their release while President Salva Kiir has rejected their calls