President Obama on Thursday announced that he has sent a team of combat-ready soldiers to the country of South Sudan amid growing violence and increasing talk of "civil war" in the African nation.
The death of several UN peacekeeping soldiers this week and reports of large numbers of civilian casualties as fighting intensified between militias and government soldiers on opposite sides of a recent coup attempt have stirred international focus on the country, with Obama telling Congress in a written statement that the recently formed country is "at the precipice" and the UN Security Council scheduled to hold an emergency meeting in New York on Friday to address the worsening situation.
As South Sudan analyst James Copnall writes, the politics of the country are complicated, but "just over two years after it became independent," with refugees fleeing the violence and over 500 people already reported killed this week, "South Sudan is living out some of its worst fears."
Though framed as a both a political and ethnic power struggle, one of the clear fault lines in the growing tensions is centered around control of the country's oil fields that are located in the north, as Reuters indicates:
China National Petroleum Corp, India's ONGC Videsh and Malaysia's Petronas are the main firms running the oilfields. Total has exploration acreage in country. South Sudan, a nation the size of France, has the third largest reserves in Sub-Saharan Africa after Angola and Nigeria, according to BP.
Oil production, which had been about 245,000 barrels per day, supplies the government with most of its revenues. [...]
South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011. A persistent dispute with Sudan over their border, oil and security have added to the sense of crisis.
The row led to the shutting of oil production for about 15 months until earlier this year, slashing state revenues and undermining efforts to improve public services in a nation of 11 million people but with barely any tarmac roads.
Deutsche Welle reports:
After first asserting that it was in control of the situation, the South Sudanese government has now admitted that its forces have lost control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei.
"The situation in South Sudan can be best described as tense and fragile. If it is not contained, it could lead to ethnic cleansing," Choul Laam, a top official with the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement told an Associated Press reporter in Nairobi.
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Meanwhile, several countries including Germany, the US, Britain and Italy have been evacuating their nationals.
Later on Thursday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged both sides to engage in dialogue as a way of ending the bloodshed.
"The future of this young nation requires its current leadership to do everything possible to prevent South Sudan descending into the chaos that would be such a betrayal of the ideals behind its long struggle for independence," a statement released by his office said.
Offering additional background, the Guardian reports:
South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, has accused his former deputy Riek Machar of attempting to launch a coup last Sunday. The pair, who have been rivals since the long civil war that ended in 2005 and split the country, had been in an uneasy power-sharing government since independence in 2011.
Kiir hails from the Dinka community, while Machar comes from the Nuer. The accusation that the former vice-president had attempted to seize power led to widespread reprisals against his supporters and fellow Nuer in the capital and surrounding areas. What began as a political power struggle has spilled over into open ethnic conflict in some areas.
In Unity State, which produces much of the oil that supports the economies of South Sudan and Sudan, fighting has led to oil workers fleeing the fields and reports suggest the government has lost control of the state capital, Bentiu.
In Jonglei a Nuer-led rebel militia, which claims its community is under attack by the government, has seized Bor, one of the country's most strategically important towns.
The militia made up of military mutineers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has been raised under the command of the defected general Peter Gadet. After the storming of the UN base, Gadet said he would intervene to prevent further killings.
"It's an important distinction that the Akobo attack was not carried out by the armed opposition but by local youths," said Casie Copeland, a South Sudan expert with the Brussels-based monitor the International Crisis Group.