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Peace agreement in South Sudan threatened by renewed violence

The world’s newest nation slides back into civil war when the former rebels accused the government of attacking their camps with helicopter gunships.

Intense fighting erupted in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, on July 10, 2016. The heavy fire arm spread out between forces loyal to the president, President Salva Kiir, and those of the vice president Riek Machar.

The conflict was largely driven by ethnic lines. Kiir drew support from his Dinka tribe while Machar earned loyalties by his Nuer tribe.

It has been reported that after days of clashes there were more than 250 soldiers and former rebels lost their lives, jeopardizing the fragile peace agreement and risking the country to fall into the civil war once again.

In suburbs area, where troops loyal to Machar have set up camps, shots rang out at around 8.30 am.

The camp was a place where former rebel leader stayed after returning to Juba in April as part of a deal to end the country’s two year civil war. By late Sunday morning, witnesses said that government’s helicopter were circling around the city and that the camps had come under sustained bombardment with artillery and other heavy weapons.

A spokesperson for the U.N. mission in South Sudan, Shantal Persaud, said that small arms fire as well as heavy artillery had originated from an area northeast of the U.N. compound in Jebel, a Juba suburb adjacent to one camp occupied by the former rebels, in the morning and continued throughout the day. She said that the government troops were aiming at Machar’s former rebels who were camped to the southwest of the U.N. base.

A displaced South Sudanese man who was holed up in a so called Protection of Civilian (PoC) said in a telephone interview with Foreign Policy, “Fighting is still on; the war is still on. There are so many wounded people. Wounded people are flowing in now into [the] PoC, and some shells are landing inside [the] PoC.”

Despite the fact that there are thousands of civilian and U.N. personnel caught in the crossfire, the U.N. peacekeepers have not responded.

“These people, they are just around with their tanks … They are not shooting even,” the displaced South Sudanese man said and as he was describing the situation, a loud explosion could be heard from the background. “That’s the landed shelling, just [on] the other side of UNMISS base,” he said. He also recounted witnessing a young girl as she was struck by a shell inside the PoC as well seeing two adults get hit in the head by stray bullets.

The UN mission UNMISS said it was “outraged at the resumption of violence”, which it said had led hundreds of people from Juba to seek shelter in its base.  “Both UNMISS compounds in Juba have sustained impacts from small arms and heavy weapons fire,” it said in a statement.

According to an aid worker in Tomping who spoke anonymously, roughly 2,000 people have taken refuge in the U.N.’s Tomping facility near the airport, across town from the Jebel base, and another 2,000 are taking cover in the World Food Programme’s compound.

An eyewitness said that the fight escalated dramatically on Friday, even as the two leaders appealed for calm in a joint press conference that afternoon.The fighting died down on Saturday, left the city in high tension.

Government spokesman Lul Ruai Koang confirmed that the fighting Sunday involved “heavy artillery and small arms fire,” but said, “We do not know why and who started it.”

The country gained independence from Sudan on 2011, with which it fought a decades-long war of secession. During that time, Kiir and Machar had been at times allies and at times rivals. But they were being united under U.S.-backed peace process that installed their Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) political party into power at independence in 2011. Kiir became president and Machar became vice president.

But in July 2013, Kiir sacked Machar from his vice presidential post. This has led to a power-struggle between the men. Five months later, war broke out after Kiir’s troops massacred people of Machar’s Nuer ethnic group in Juba.

By the By the beginning of 2016, more than 2 million South Sudanese had been displaced and as many as 100,000 had been killed, though estimates vary widely.

The peace agreement, signed in August 2015 were supposed to bring the men in the unity government and bring peace to the country. But both had continuously flouted its provisions.

“This was expected to be a disaster, and it has turned out to be a disaster,” said Peter Biar Ajak, a millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. who studies South Sudan. “Everything in this peace agreement has turned out to be not well thought out. You have troops that are not well trained, not paid in some cases, and armed to the teeth. This was what was always going to happen.