Power Struggle Fuels Violence In South Sudan

The United States is trying to broker a political solution between the combatants in South Sudan where violence threatens to explode into civil war. The fighting is between forces loyal to President Salva Kir and those who follow Kir's former deputy, Riak Machar.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

Later today, the United Nations Security Council is expected to vote on sending thousands more peacekeeping troops to South Sudan. This is a country that the United States helped form in 2011.

And now a power struggle between the president and his former vice president has spiraled into violence along tribal lines. Hundreds of people have died and tens of thousands are displaced.

Let's turn now to NPR's Gregory Warner who is in the country, in the capital, Juba.

Greg, good morning.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: It certainly sounds peaceful where you are. What are you seeing and what's the situation?

WARNER: The mood is peaceful. I don't know if you can hear the birds chirping behind me, the weather is in the upper 90s, and churches preparing for Christmas. Of course, this is a majority Christian nation. That was the United States' interest, originally, in the conflict in Sudan and South Sudan. And right now many people say no, those days are behind us. But look, there's thousands of people holed up in the U.N. compound afraid to go home.

GREENE: OK. So this is such a young country looking to hold on to some semblance of peace. And it seems like the key to that is going to be these two men and their two tribes - the president and the former vice president actually talking and trying to settle this. Is there any hope of that?

WARNER: There have really been some positive signs. Really, in the past 24 hours, U.S. envoy Donald Booth is in town. He met with President Salva Kiir; Salva Kiir told him that he's willing to have unconditional talks with the former deputy, Riek Machar.

There's now an issue of political prisoners. Riek Machar says he won't start talks until those prisoners are released. Kiir is refusing to release them, but shows that they're in good condition. It's kind of evolving into a negotiation.

Under that though, is the continuing violence in other parts of the country. I mentioned Juba, the capital is peaceful. But right now what's really worrying people are the events in Jonglei State. Jonglei is in the east of the country. It's right on the border of Ethiopia it's been the site of the worst ethnic violence that really started even before this past week of violence. And there's a commander there whose name will probably surface in the news over the next few days. His name is Peter Gatdet, and he's the one that fired on U.S. aircraft - or his troops did. They also killed two U.N. peacekeepers. And he has said that he's going to march on Juba. And, in fact, in the typical code of South Sudan warfare, he's given Juba three days to evacuate before he marches on the town.

Again, does he have that capacity? Nobody knows. Is it just an empty threat? Perhaps. But he's certainly shown himself willing to use violence. And of course, Peter Gatdet is tribally affiliated with Riek Machar - the former vice president.

GREENE: Well, Greg, with, I mean with ominous warnings like that, marching into the capital within days, I mean there is talk about this turning into a larger civil war. Can you remind people what's at stake here in this young country?

WARNER: I was talking to one young South Sudanese guy and he said, you know, people are now starting to ask who their neighbors are. And, of course, what he means is they're wondering are their neighbors their own tribal identity or are they something different? Because if things go bad again, they want to know that there are people that they can trust. And that is what is at stake here, because this is a young country, the institutions of democracy are two and a half years old, they're really being tested now. If people retreat into tribalism, if they feel that that is their safety and not the military, not the institutions, then this country could ignite into civil war.

GREENE: We've been speaking to NPR's Gregory Warner who is in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Greg, thanks a lot.

WARNER: Thanks a lot, David.

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