JUBA, South Sudan — Twenty-five thousand young men who make up a tribal militia known as the “White Army” are marching toward a contested state capital in South Sudan, an official said Saturday, dimming hopes for a cease-fire.
Seeking an end to the nearly two-week crisis in which an estimated 1,000 people have been killed, leaders from across East Africa announced Friday that South Sudan agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” against forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, accused by the government of leading a coup attempt Dec. 15 that erupted into spiraling violence.
But Machar rejected that, saying in an interview with the BBC any cease-fire had to be negotiated by delegations from both sides. The government in the capital, Juba, seized on that statement to further condemn Machar.
“Dr. Riek Machar has put obstacles to this genuine call by issuing pre-conditions that a cease-fire cannot be reached unless a negotiation is conducted,” said Vice President James Wani Igga. “This is complete intransigence and obstinacy because the main issue now is to stop violence.”
In addition to those killed, tens of thousands are seeking shelters at United Nations camps.
More fighting is expected. Most serious is the looming battle for Bor, the provincial capital of Jonglei state that briefly fell to rebels before government forces took it back this week, said military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer. Pro-Machar forces are thought to be preparing a fresh offensive to retake Bor, the Jonglei state town where three United States military aircraft were hit by gunfire while trying to evacuate American citizens Dec. 21, wounding four U.S. service members.
The estimated 25,000 youths from the Lou Nuer sub-clan — the same tribe Machar is from — are marching on Bor, said Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth. The “White Army” gets its name from the white ash fighters put on their skin as protection from insects.
“He has decided to mobilize the youth in the name of his tribe,” Lueth said.
The estimate of 25,000 came from intelligence inside the group itself, Lueth said. Asked if the government was monitoring the group from the air, he said only: “Well, ultimately we are monitoring.”