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US scrambles to avert civil war in South Sudan

By Bradley Klapper

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 9 2014 1:48 p.m. MST

Refugees who fled the recent violence in South Sudan and crossed the border into Uganda sit with their belongings as they await transportation from a transit center in the town of Koboko to a nearby settlement in Arua District, in northern Uganda, Monday, Jan. 6, 2014.

Rebecca Vassie, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Three years after midwifing South Sudan's birth, the United States is desperately trying to prevent the world's youngest nation from falling apart.

Yet despite shared consternation by the Obama administration and Congress, no one is quite sure what the U.S. can do to bring peace to a country that in many ways owes its existence to the United States. The violence has killed more than 1,000 people and driven 180,000 from their homes in the last month, and spread to neighbors killing each other purely on tribal identification, threatening a place that until recently was viewed by Democrats and Republicans alike as an American success story in Africa.

"Each day that the conflict continues, the risk of all-out civil war grows," Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, warned Thursday. "There is clear evidence that targeted killings have taken place, with Dinka killing Nuer, and Nuer killing Dinka. Countless civilians, particularly women and children, have become victims."

For the United States, South Sudan's instability isn't just another example of a weak African state struggling to deal with political infighting, endemic poverty and deadly battles between the military and rebel groups. Because of its history as a largely Christian nation that was able to win its freedom from Muslim-dominated Sudan, South Sudan has a powerful constituency in Washington. And the bloodshed is proving an embarrassment to the U.S., which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the country and been its strongest international champion.

The crisis began with a political dispute on Dec. 15 as President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of trying to overthrow the government. Machar denies the accusation, accusing the government of rooting out political opponents. Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. had no evidence of a coup attempt, putting the initial blame on the government for raiding Machar's home.

But the violence has spread significantly since, sparking a series of ethnically motivated attacks and counterattacks while groups allied to Machar have claimed military victories and greater control of territory. Meanwhile, Uganda has sent in hundreds of troops and provided Sudanese government forces with military hardware, and threatened deeper intervention if militants move on the capital, Juba.

Washington has mobilized on two fronts, organizing peace talks between representatives of both sides in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and getting the U.N. Security Council last month to approve 5,500 more peacekeepers to South Sudan.

The peace talks have yet to stop the fighting, though Thomas-Greenfield said a cease-fire was all but agreed if Kiir releases 11 high-level political detainees. Help also could also come soon for the 7,600-strong U.N. force in South Sudan, she added, even if only a Bangladeshi police unit has arrived thus far.

"For 30 years the United States has been supporting the people of South Sudan, even before South Sudan became an entity, supporting their right to exist, their right to freedom of religion, and their fight against the government of Sudan," Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We birthed this nation and there are Americans from all walks of life ... who are concerned about what is happening."

Senators agreed. "This is a place people expect us to make a difference," Sen. Bob Corker, the committee's top Republican said.

Washington has clear security interests at stake. Having seen al-Qaida gain a foothold in several nearby countries over the last couple of years, the U.S. doesn't want to see terrorist groups infiltrate yet another place wracked by internal fighting. And it also is keeping a wary eye on Sudan, which fought for 22 years to hold onto the oil-rich territory and which the United States still considers a state sponsor of terrorism. Its president has suggested joint security patrols with South Sudan's government, which the U.S. has yet to respond to.

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