South Sudan: Gun battles threaten new country

JUBA, South Sudan — Shaken by a week of gun battles that killed more than 115 people, South Sudan is threatened by more violence and instability, according to officials.

Compounding the problems of general insecurity and widespread poverty are looming food shortages.

“The situation in the country as a whole is extremely precarious, and the risk of a dangerous decline is very real,” warned Valerie Amos, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who left South Sudan Saturday, after urging donors to plug a serious financial and food gap.

Earlier in the week a gun battle broke out at a peace conference in which 37 people were killed and served as a stark warning that the world’s newest nation is teetering between hope and failure.

The attack on Wednesday in South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity state happened as the UN tried to bring officials from three states together to resolve deadly cattle rustling incidents, just days after an attack in which 79 people were killed in Warrap state.

The trouble began when a county commissioner from the neighboring Lakes state abused his local counterpart when he gatecrashed the event, along with eight trucks full of armed men, sparking a massive firefight.

“Six among the eight [trucks] were mounted with machines guns,” Unity state Minister of Information Gideon Gatpan Thoar told GlobalPost Saturday while attending prayers for the dead.

“Sixteen were killed on our side and 21 on the other side,” he said.

More from GlobalPost: 36 killed in shootout at peace conference

Shots were fired indiscriminately at the meeting hall where talks were being held, according to eyewitnesses. More than 40 people were wounded, with many suffering gunshot wounds from the crossfire, including a UN worker.

The shootout and cattle rustling violence are grim reminders that South Sudan, just six months old as a nation, is marked by instability.

To add to the problems, the South Sudan government has stopped exporting its oil because of a wrangle with neighboring Sudan over how much South Sudan should pay to use the oil pipeline that runs through Sudan. This is certain to create economic problems as 98 percent of South Sudan's income is from its oil exports.

Despite a peaceful secession that conceded South Sudan three-quarters of the crude oil, a bitter row has ensued with Sudan over how much it should pay to transport its oil.

Accusing over Sudan of “stealing” southern oil through the pipeline and a Red Sea port, South Sudan President Salva Kiir's government turned off the oil taps to Sudan's piple. It also cut off its own economic lifeline.

“If oil production is shut down, many people will feel the effects. Humanitarian needs will inevitably increase and the combined efforts of the government, the aid community and the donors will not be sufficient. The scope of this crisis cannot be ignored,” said Amos.

The move may not immediately affect the majority of South Sudanese, as many complain they have yet to see a drop of the oil wealth trickle down. Kiir's government has already been accused of rampant corruption and of not delivering basic services to the population.

Another challenge for government is how to assure payment to the army, estimated to be as large as 200,000, a legacy of the 20 year civil war, and which many see as a largely undisciplined force.

This combination of problems is taking South Sudan toward a “perfect storm,” said John Holmes, head of the International Rescue Committee.

After a recent visit, Holmes said the euphoria of South Sudan separating from former foe Sudan has turned into a messy divorce getting nastier over oil revenues, mass ethnic violence, and a worsening humanitarian situation while expectations for basic services are high.

Age-old squabbles and traditional cattle raiding between communities have become increasingly deadly in a nation awash with guns after decades of civil war.

The cattle rustling has escalated into large-scale fighting between South Sudan's different tribes. Last month up to 8,000 armed youths from the Lou Nuer tribe joined by some Dinka marched on Murle areas in Jonglei state, razing homes, and killing those who could not run away. Hundreds were killed and women and children were abducted, according to authorities.

Over 140,000 people fled their homes because of the violent clashes. The displacements worsened a food crisis because South Sudan has only produced about half the food it needs for 2012.

To solve the food problem, Valerie Amos said that the UN’s appeal for $760 million might have to be increased if South Sudan is flooded with an estimated 500,000 refugees from Sudan's Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.

Khartoum has been battling rebels formerly loyal to the South there as far back as June, and US envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman recently warned of a famine situation by March if humanitarian access was blocked.

As relations between the two Sudans sour, an April deadline for up to 700,000 southerners to get legal or get out of the North also looms, as the UN urges “dignified and voluntary returns” and others fear people could be the pawns as a tug of war over oil becomes a double noose.

The African Union is trying to negotiate a settlement over the oil pipline but rhetoric on both sides is making a resolution look unlikely.

South Sudan is facing several problems with no easy answers.

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