Rebels In South Sudan Secure Control Over Bor

The battle for the minor city of Bor was always about location. Bor is the capital of Jonglei State, providing a base from which to attack that region's oil fields. Bor is also just north of the capital Juba.

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And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

We reported yesterday on peace talks in Ethiopia. They are aimed at ending violence that has engulfed neighboring South Sudan, a young country that gained independence only in 2011. As those peace talks take place, the situation in South Sudan is not peaceful. In fact, this could be a very ominous moment. Rebel forces - including child soldiers - appear poised to move into the capital, Juba. People are fleeing the city. The U.S. Embassy there has ordered the evacuation of more staff. The threat seems real, as rebels already regained control over Bor, a strategic city not far from the capital.

We have more now from NPR's Gregory Warner.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The battle for the minor city of Bor was always about location. Bor is the capital of Jonglei State, providing a base from which to attack that region's oil fields. But Bor is also just north of the capital, Juba. The spokesman for the South Sudanese Army, Colonel Aguer, reached this morning by cell phone, says that rebel forces - loyal to deposed Vice President Riek Machar - are still in control of Bor, and they've moved some 15 miles south, preparing to march on Juba.

The fighting force is a mix of defected army soldiers, as well as thousands of children and youth from the Nuer tribe, armed only with crude weapons like machetes and their belief in an old political prophesy.

COLONEL PHILIP AGUER: There is a prophet that, one time, a left-handed Luo Nuer will rule South Sudan.

WARNER: A prophesy that one day, a left-handed, gap-toothed man from the Nuer tribe will rule South Sudan. Riek Machar is Nuer. He's also left-handed. Colonel Aguer says his Nuer youth are fighting in a suicidal fashion.

AGUER: They are dying. And they don't know exactly what actually is killing them.

WARNER: They are dying without knowing what is killing them, he says. He says the government needs another 48 hours to win this battle. But the army has promised victory before in Bor and been repulsed, twice. The closer the battle approaches the capital, the greater the chance that South Sudan's neighbors will get involved.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, on Monday, promised that Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia - some of the best-equipped militaries on the continent - would unite to, quote, "defeat" Machar if a ceasefire did not take place. Since that announcement, Riek Machar has seemed to take two tacks. He's agreed in principle to a ceasefire and sent his delegation to Addis Ababa for peace talks. At the same time, his forces continue to take territory.

U.S. special envoy Donald Booth, reached in Addis today, says Machar has not officially said he's marching on the capital, Juba. However...

DONALD BOOTH: Intentions that are said and intentions on the ground may be two different things.

WARNER: Ambassador Booth still hopes that face-to-face talks could begin as soon as tomorrow.

BOOTH: Both sides will be looking at the root causes of the problem. They will have to come to grips with that.

WARNER: The root cause of the problem is a struggle for power. Riek Machar's announcement that he intended to run for president in 2015 triggered a series of events that allegedly resulted in an attempted coup three weeks ago. Since then, some 200,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.

David Nash is the country director for Doctors Without Borders. He just returned from a village across over the Nile River from Bor. More than 60,000 people have taken refuge there, and the conditions are ripe for a deadly outbreak of watery diarrhea or measles.

DAVID NASH: If measles gets a way in a population of young children who are living in crowded conditions, the casualties would be high.

WARNER: Now he's back in the capital, Juba. People there are also rumored to be fleeing to the remote south, despite the presence of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers in Juba and around the country.

NASH: It's yeah it's hard to say, you know, where is going to be the safe place. And you've got to be pretty desperate to run to a situation where you have no food, no water, and you're sleeping under a tree.

WARNER: But that desperate situation, for some, seems a better option than waiting in their homes another day.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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