Uganda has confirmed its troops are fighting alongside South Sudan’s government against rebels, as fresh details emerged Thursday of brutal ethnic killings in the conflict ravaging the world’s youngest nation.
Ceasefire talks to end a conflict of over a month in which thousands have been killed are deadlocked amid squabbling with leaders and rebel demanding for the release of political prisoners.
Government delegation head Nhial Deng Nhial arrived back in Juba Thursday calling the negotiations in neighbouring Ethiopia “tough”.
He said that he had come to consult back in the capital.
The talks are mediated by the East African regional bloc IGAD, of which Uganda is a key member, raising concerns for the body as a neutral negotiator for the rebels.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said his troops were supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – the first official confirmation that foreign forces are taking part in combat.
“The SPLA and elements of our army had a big battle with these rebel troops… we inflicted a big defeat on them,” Museveni said, speaking at a summit meeting in Angola late Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, many lives were lost on the side of the rebels.
We also took casualties and also had some dead,” he added.
Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed so far in the fighting pitting forces loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose coalition of army defectors and ethnic militia nominally headed by Riek Machar, a former vice president and seasoned guerrilla fighter.
Ugandan troops deployed in South Sudan five days after fighting began on December 15, 2013 to support Kiir, but had so far been vague over the nature of its operations.
A confidential memo from Kenya’s foreign ministry seen by AFP reports that Machar has alleged Ugandan fighter jets have tried to bomb his hideout in Jonglei state.
The document warned that the presence of foreign forces – also reportedly including rebel fighters from neighbouring Sudan’s Darfur region – could “derail the process” of talks, with Machar telling Kenya that “the credibility of IGAD as a mediator in the conflict is in question”.
According to the United Nations, some 400,000 civilians have fled their homes over the past month as the violence spiralled into ethnic killings between members of Kiir’s Dinka people – the country’s largest group – and the Nuer community of Machar.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday released a report detailing atrocities and warning that “appalling crimes have been committed against civilians for no other reason than their ethnicity.”
HRW, who said the UN should impose an asset freeze and travel ban on anyone linked to human rights violations, documented reports of “widespread killings”, including a massacre in Juba of between 200 and 300 men when security forces fired guns into a locked room.
Others detailed targeted killings including the shooting of children.
“They brought out five of my neighbours and shot them in the street,” a 42-year-old bricklayer in Juba told HRW, recounting killings at the start of the conflict.
“We ran, the soldiers said ‘stop’, we refused and they shot at us.
I stopped to pick my son but he was heavy and dead.
When they reached him they shot him again,” he added.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed alarm at the “rising number of fatalities” in the fighting.
He has also condemned both the army and rebels for stealing food and humanitarian supplies.
The UN World Food Programme has said enough food has been stolen to feed 180,000 people for a month.
More than four million people, or roughly a third of the population of the country that won independence from Sudan only in 2011, were deemed to be “food insecure” by WFP even before fighting began.
The army has for days talked of an imminent assault on rebel-held Bor, the capital of restive Jonglei state, which has already swapped hands three times since the fighting began.
On Monday, rebels staged an assault to seize back Malakal – the main town in oil-producing Upper Nile state – where tank battles were reported on the streets on Monday.
Both the government and rebels have said they are in control of the town.
“Malakal town is fully under our control,” Minister of Information Michael Makui told AFP.
“As for Bor town we are advancing towards it.”-nation.co.ke