South Sudan's government and rebels signed a ceasefire deal Thursday that leaders hope will put a pause to five weeks of warfare that has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians.
The peace deal represents the first real progress since political friction turned violent Dec. 15, fuelling countrywide battles with ethnic overtones. But questions were immediately raised about whether all fighters in South Sudan would abide by the agreement, and how long others would follow it.
The military spokesman for South Sudan cautioned that a group of rebel fighters from the former vice president's Nuer ethnic group — thousands of armed youths known as the "White Army" — may not want peace.
"Riek Machar has been using that force to fight the SPLA, so we have to see what will happen," said Col. Philip Aguer, using the acronym for South Sudan's military.
"War is not good for anybody, especially war fought for power of a political position," Aguer continued. "Civilians, innocents are dying, so it is good for the people of South Sudan to have peace."
'First critical step toward building a lasting peace.' - U.S. President Barack Obama
Nhail Deng Nhail, the head of South Sudan's negotiating team, said his side is worried that since many on the rebel side are civilians who took up arms, "it may become difficult to follow the cease-fire since they are not militarily disciplined."
President Barack Obama welcomed the deal — technically called a cessation of hostilities — and described it as a "first critical step toward building a lasting peace."
In a statement, he called on South Sudan's leaders to implement it fully and start a political dialogue to resolve the conflict's causes. He said it was critical that political detainees currently held by South Sudan's government fully participate.
Obama said "those working for a more peaceful, democratic, unified South Sudan will continue to have a steady partner in the United States of America."
The UN Security Council also issued a statement welcoming the cease-fire, condemning violent attacks on civilians and UN bases in South Sudan and demanding accountability. In a separate statement, a UN spokesman said the UN secretary-general called on all parties to "immediately implement this agreement" and called for freedom of movement for mission and aid workers and human rights monitors.
Talks are scheduled to resume in early February, but a sore point between the sides remains. Machar's side has been pushing to get 11 top former government leaders released from prison. President Salva Kiir has said the 11 will be subjected to South Sudan's judicial process.
The top negotiator for Machar's side, Taban Deng Gai, a general in South Sudan's army before he defected, said late Thursday that talks would not continue if the government does not release the 11 detainees. South Sudan's information minister, Michael Makuel Lueth, said the detainee issue has nothing to do with the cessation of hostilities agreement.
The United States helped broker talks that saw South Sudan end its civil war with Sudan in 2005 and then gain independence in 2011. Tepid progress by the world's newest country — and one of the globe's poorest — has been turned upside down.
Atrocities committed by both sides
An estimated half million residents have fled their homes because of the fighting, which has often pitted Kiir's Dinka-led government and military against Nuer fighters backing Machar.
The U.N. has warned of atrocities committed by both sides on the battlefield. The fighting has imperilled South Sudan's oil industry, after technical workers fled and rebel fighters took control of the fields for some time.
The U.N. on Thursday said it is protecting 76,000 civilians at eight bases in South Sudan. The U.N. mission has received reports of fighting continuing in multiple locations in the country.
The aid group World Vision said the deal "could mean we finally have access to areas where children are in desperate need and have been trapped by the violence and cut off from aid."
The Enough Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group that works on Central Africa issues, said Thursday's deal is only the first step on a long road to a durable peace. The group said it was "far from guaranteed" that all combatants would lay down arms.
"If an inclusive peace process is not constructed that seeks to address root causes, the conflict will continue, with deadly consequences," said John Prendergast, the group's co-founder. His group called for an inclusive dialogue, a commitment to accountability and security sector reform.