Indian peacekeepers facing greater risks in South Sudan

United Nations, July 9 (IANS) Escalating tensions in South Sudan are bringing the civil war to the doorstep of Indian peacekeepers, putting them at increased risk while the UN is unable to broker a peace between the young nation’s warring sides or restrain them.

With over 2,000 Indian troops serving in the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the heightened tensions have raised the Indian government’s concerns for their safety after a recent attack on a refugee camp where Indian peacekeepers are stationed for protecting civilians.

India’s Permanent Representative Asoke Kumar Mukerji has in recent days taken up the deteriorating situation in that country with top UN Secretariat officials, as well as with the members of the UN Security Council who deal with this issue directly.

He has warned of the rising risks to the peacekeepers and reiterated his call for more vigorous efforts to find a political solution to the problem there.

South Sudan, which observes Thursday the fourth anniversary of its independence from Sudan, is in the throes of a civil war between supporters of the two rival leaders, President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former vice president Riek Machar.

A source familiar with the field situation told IANS on Wednesday that peacekeepers have been placed on high alert and staff members have been advised to restrict their movement after a rebel attack on a refugee camp guarded by 800 Indian troops in Malakal in the Upper Nile state killed a refugee and wounded six others. The injured were being treated at the Indian peacekeepers’ hospital and one of them was in a critical condition, the source added.

The attack on July 1 was carried out by the South Sudan rebels led by Major General Johnson Olony, who defected from Kiir’s side to Machar’s, according to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a grouping of East African nations charged with holding peace negotiations in South Sudan. The rebel army is known as Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition/Olony (SPLA-IO/Olony).

Highlighting the risk of the peacekeeping operation turning into an armed confrontation when UN troops come under attack by the warring sides, the source said peacekeepers from an African country at the refugee camp fired back, bruising the shoulder of a SPLA-IO/Olony soldier.

UN troops intercepted the attackers but 15 others rushed to their rescue and peacekeepers freed them in order to de-escalate the standoff, the source said.

In May, an Indian Army colonel was injured in crossfire between two warring groups in Malakal.

On Monday, there were more reports of belligerent actions in the area of the Malakal camp. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters that 400 troops of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which is loyal to Kiir drove past the UNMISS Malakal compound on Monday morning with tanks and armoured personnel carriers. This followed reports of three mortar rounds fired towards Malakal town.

Detailing the toll of the civil war, Ban said Wednesday: “More than 1.6 million people have been displaced, including over 150,000 now seeking refuge in UNMISS protection sites. Some 4.6 million face severe food insecurity and over 600,000 have been forced to flee into neighbouring countries.”

In the years since South Sudan’s independence, the UN has changed the focus of UNMISS mission to primarily protecting civilians who have become internal refugees.

Although UNMISS asserts that any attack on a protection-of-civilians site may constitute a war crime, the UN has done little to enforce international law or stop the civil war.

Earlier this month, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on six South Sudanese generals, three from either side, banning their travel and freezing their assets. A diplomat here dismissed it as mere tokenism because it did not affect the top leaderships.

Herve Ladsous, the under secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, on Wednesday called for sanctions against more leaders and an arms embargo. One of the factors limiting IGAD’s peace efforts is that one of its members, Uganda, is itself a supplier of weapons to Kiir.

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