NAIROBI, Kenya — After a lull of several weeks, fighting broke out in South Sudan on Friday, forcing aid workers to take cover in a city where more than 40,000 civilians are huddled in a U.N. base. The country's rebel leader blamed the government for spending oil money on new weapons amid mass hunger in the country.
Riek Machar, the country's former vice president and current rebel leader, told The Associated Press that China should stop sending weapons to South Sudan's government. He said government funds, which come from oil revenue, should be spent on citizens who face severe hunger.
Aid leaders fear that South Sudan could be facing a famine. Since December, more than 1 million people have fled their homes, meaning crops were not planted before seasonal rains began. The violence often pits one ethnic group against another in the world's newest country. South Sudan broke off from larger Sudan in 2011.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said during a Security Council trip to South Sudan this week that U.N. officials have "very worrying reports" of arms being brought into the country to set the stage for more fighting when the rains end.
Despite the signing of two peace deals this year, and despite the fact the rainy season continues, fighting broke out in the city of Bentiu, where a U.N. base is packed with people seeking safety from attacks. Bentiu has traded hands multiple times since violence spread across South Sudan last December. Government troops have been in control of it in recent weeks.
"We heard the sound of fighting and took cover in the bunkers as it started to get closer," said Timothy Ngyuai, CARE's project manager in Bentiu. "We're back at work now, providing life-saving assistance to those who have fled the violence and have chartered a flight for tomorrow morning to bring medicine to help treat the sick and wounded."
The U.N. Security Council met with President Salva Kiir and spoke with Machar via video conference this week. Power said the two leaders should set aside their differences and urgently resolve the political crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, during this month's U.S.-Africa summit in Washington, accused Machar's side of breaking the peace deals that have been brokered. Kerry added: "Deadlines keep passing and innocent people keep dying. The log-rolling and delay has to end."
Machar denied that his side is responsible for violence and instead blamed Kiir.
Machar noted that he has been in Ethiopia — the site of peace talks — since May. The former vice president said he wants direct negotiations with Kiir's government instead of a suggested structure that civil society and religious leaders also take part.
"It will not bring a speedy a process. We want a speedy process so we can conclude the talks and end the war," Machar said.
Machar said any peace deal leading to a national unity transitional government will need to lay out government reforms, including changes to the army and security services, and a restructuring of public services and the judiciary.
South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth said in a recent statement that it is the rebel negotiators who are slowing down talks.