South Sudan violence forces Canada to withdraw staff

The Canadian government has temporarily withdrawn its staff from South Sudan, even as regional African leaders say they are making progress toward an end of hostilities in the world’s newest country.

More than 120,000 residents displaced by hostilities in world's newest country

Canadian government temporarily removes diplomatic staff even as regional leaders say they are making progress towards peace talks 1:50

The Canadian government has temporarily withdrawn its staff from South Sudan, even as regional African leaders say they are making progress toward an end of hostilities in the world’s newest country.

Lynne Yelich, Canada’s junior minister for foreign affairs, said in a statement Friday that the government was authorizing the temporary suspension of operations at its office in the capital. 

"Canada’s head of office in Juba will temporarily work out of the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya, until appropriate measures are put in place to respond to the changing operational environment," Yelich said.

Canada has previously advised Canadians to leave South Sudan, and repeated on Friday that they should leave on commercial flights as soon as possible if they are able to do so.

South Sudan's government agreed Friday to end hostilities, according to regional leaders at a crisis summit in Nairobi, raising hopes for a potential breakthrough in efforts to cease violence that has displaced more than 120,000 people.

East African leaders meeting in Kenya under a bloc called IGAD said in a statement that they "welcomed the commitment... to an immediate cessation of hostilities."

But former vice-president Riek Machar, President Salva Kiir's political rival who is accused of orchestrating a failed coup that the government says sparked unrest across the oil-producing country, was not represented at the summit.

Machar, the leaders' joint statement said, is urged to "make similar commitments" to end hostilities.

IGAD said it opposes a violent change of government in South Sudan and urged Kiir and his rivals to start peace talks before the end of 2013.

Conditions for truce not in place

At the meeting in Kenya, South Sudan agreed not to carry out a planned offensive to recapture Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity state, which is controlled by troops loyal to Riek Machar, the former vice president vilified by the government as a corrupt coup plotter.

"We are not moving on Bentiu as long as the rebel forces abide by the cease-fire," said Michael Makuei Lueth, South Sudan's information minister.

We have not seen any sign of a ceasefire.- Army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer

Said army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer: "We have not seen any sign of a ceasefire. There is no ceasefire agreed by the two sides," an indication the planned assault on Bentiu could still take place. But no one representing Machar was at the Nairobi meeting — a move possibly meant to deny him any elevated status that could also slow the search for peace. And Machar told the BBC that conditions for a truce were not yet in place.

In the field, the military reported no immediate changes in the battle for control of the world's newest country.

Elsewhere, the country's military advanced on the rebel-held town of Malakal early Friday and had taken control of it by noon, Aguer said.

Ethnic overtones

Violence erupted Dec. 15 in South Sudan's capital Juba and quickly spread across the country. Ethnic Nuers — the group Machar is from — say they are being targeted by Dinkas, the ethnic group of President Salva Kiir.

The UN, the South Sudan government and other analysts say the dispute is political at its heart, but has since taken on ethnic overtones.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta cited the example of the late Nelson Mandela and said there is 'a very small window of opportunity to secure peace' in South Sudan. (Reuters)

The 25,000 people — mostly Nuers — sheltering at UN camps in Juba fear they would be targeted for death if they leave. Members of the government insist Juba's streets are safe for all.

The fighting has displaced more than 120,000 people and killed more than 1,000.

South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 after decades of a brutal independence war. The young country has been plagued by corruption, ethnic tension and a power struggle within the ruling party that pits Kiir against Machar.

Machar, the alleged leader of renegade forces now in control of some parts of South Sudan, remains a fugitive wanted by the military. At least 10 of his political allies are in detention for their roles in the alleged coup plot. Machar denies there was a coup attempt.

The number of internally displaced people continues to rise, with many seeking shelter at UN compounds across the country. There are sporadic military clashes in the oil-rich states of Unity and Upper Nile, potentially endangering the oil revenues that South Sudan depends on to keep the government running.

The UN said aid agencies need at least $166 million US to save lives.

With files from CBC News