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Key rebel leader in South Sudan’s civil war rejects peace deal, won't lay down arms

“We’re not going to stop. If Juba thinks that without bullets we’re not going to be able to protect ourselves and our people they’re wrong,” rebel leader Thomas Cirillo told VICE News. ​

by Sam Mednick
Feb 15 2019, 5:34pm

JUBA, South Sudan — South Sudan’s rebel leader Thomas Cirillo, who’s been called the biggest threat to the country's fragile peace deal by both the government and its chief opposition, vowed to continue the “struggle,” in an exclusive interview with VICE News.

In his first interview since the war-torn nation signed a tenuous peace deal more than five months ago, Cirillo urged the South Sudanese people to resist the country’s “suppressive” regime and criticized its two dominant parties, saying the current agreement was a “betrayal to the people of South Sudan.”

“We didn’t know that [President] Salva Kiir and his cohort would turn completely evil against the people of South Sudan,“ said Cirillo, a leading member in a coalition of four non-signatory armed groups. “We refrain from signing this agreement. We feel it is a sellout.”

South Sudan, created in 2011, was supposed to be the solution to over two decades of fighting between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). But in 2013, roughly two years after its creation, war consumed the world’s youngest nation, as the SPLM’s top leaders fought with one another for control of the country. Since then, the jostling for power between President Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar has led to a ruinous civil war that’s left nearly 400,000 people dead and millions more displaced.

South Sudan crisis
In this Feb. 20, 2018, photo, newly arrived Sudanese refugees wait at a reception center before being registered and transferred to other camps, in Yida, South Sudan. While millions of South Sudanese flee their country in what the United Nations has called the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide, hundreds of thousands of people from neighboring Sudan have found an unlikely haven there from fighting at home. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

Now, after five years of fighting, the country’s civil war has paused amid a shaky peace deal, but local leaders and analysts say it could collapse at any moment, citing an increase in violence across the Central and Western Equatoria regions and a deal that is rejected by key factions inside the country.

Cirillo is chief among that cohort. A former deputy chief of staff in South Sudan’s military, he defected in March 2017 and formed the National Salvation Front (NAS), one of many splinter opposition groups in the country’s increasingly fragmented war.

“We’re not going to stop. If Juba thinks that without bullets we’re not going to be able to protect ourselves and our people they’re wrong.”

The elusive group largely operates in the shadows of South Sudan's forests in the country’s Central and Western Equatoria regions, where fighting is among the most intense. And in recent months it has emerged as the greatest threat to the country’s peace deal, at least according to Kiir and Machar who were once sworn enemies and have now turned their collective attention towards NAS.

But it’s hard to gauge how much of a threat Cirillo and the NAS truly are. Cirillo claims to have as many as 30,000 troops under his command, but intelligence officials doubt that figure, citing NAS’s recent formation and loosely organized nature. The group lacks ammunition and is known for its special forces who fight using bows and arrows, earning them the nickname “Arrows Rangers.” There is also considerable confusion about the group’s exact whereabouts and chain of command, causing some to speculate if the threat it poses is real or concocted by the government and the main opposition.

Kiir and Machar have blamed NAS for a recent surge in violence across Central and Western Equatoria regions, where as many as 13,000 civilians have fled in January due to fighting, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Alan Boswell, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said that it's the “government who is most responsible for the spike in violence as it’s launched a large-scale offensive against the rebels.”

NAS isn’t the only threat to the country’s chance at lasting peace. Some members of other opposition groups who are already party to the agreement are calling on South Sudan’s two main leaders to step down.

In a letter seen by VICE News and sent to the Director of African Affairs at the U.S. State Department, a high-ranking member of one of the opposition parties called for an “exit strategy” for President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar in order to ease out “South Sudan’s entrenched leadership.” The letter stated that the country couldn't transition out of the crisis with Kiir in charge and Machar by his side. This will be Kiir and Machar’s third attempt at working together since South Sudan gained independence in 2011. The last failed peace deal ended with Machar fleeing the country on foot after renewed clashes broke out in Juba in July 2016.

As part of the peace deal, Machar is expected to return to South Sudan in May to once again serve as Kiir’s deputy. And with less than three months to go before Machar’s forces are to rejoin with Kiir’s, the security arrangements are barely underway.

By May, all government and opposition soldiers are supposed to be cantoned, trained and unified into one national army. As part of that transition, 150,000 opposition fighters are expected to take shelter in 40 sites across the country, according to opposition spokesman, Lam Paul Gabriel. But the sites have yet to be established, due to a lack of funds and logistical support.

On Wednesday $285 million was approved for the peace deal’s initial implementation, according to Gabriel Changson Chang deputy chairperson for the National Pre-Transitional Committee, the group tasked with overseeing the early phases of the agreement. But the international community remains skeptical of the deal’s viability and few countries have committed funds. The U.S. UK and Norway — the troika that helped usher South Sudan to independence — didn't sign the agreement due to concerns about the "parties' level of commitment."

Former U.S. diplomat Payton Knopf said while it’s reasonable to “withhold financial support for an agreement that has little chance of success, it's incumbent on the United States to articulate a strategy that could more effectively resolve the ongoing conflict.”

“The region will go after him, the African Union won’t favor him, even the U.N. will just say ‘no we want peace.’”

Cirillo, meanwhile, told VICE News that his group would remain in the bush until a new peace deal was negotiated. He says he wants to end South Sudan’s two-man power struggle.

“We’re not going to stop. If Juba thinks that without bullets we’re not going to be able to protect ourselves and our people they’re wrong,” Cirillo said.

He’s pushing for a distributed control at the state, county and village levels so people have more autonomy over financial, legislative and judiciary decisions. And points to proposed “bloated” government, which includes five Vice Presidents and 550 lawmakers, as example of a peace deal bound to fail.

“We need a governance system which renders services to the people of South Sudan,” he said.

But international observers worry that Cirillo’s tactics of prolonging the conflict until a better deal is negotiated will only cause more suffering for South Sudan’s population. Others say if he doesn’t get his way, Cirillo could become an outcast for good.

“The region will go after him, the African Union won’t favor him, even the U.N. will just say ‘no we want peace’,” said Henry Odwar deputy chairman for the main opposition group who’s tried to convince Cirillo to join the current agreement.

He likened Cirillo to Joseph Kony, Uganda’s notorious warlord and leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, who’s been on the run for years. “What will happen to Thomas Cirillo? He’ll be a fugitive, the way Kony is a fugitive today and that is not good for him.”

Sam Mednick is a reporter based in South Sudan.

Cover: In this photo taken Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, opposition soldiers pose for a picture while loading their guns in Panyume town, the headquarters for the opposition in Central Equatoria state, in South Sudan. Since a fragile peace deal was signed in Sept. 2018, South Sudan's previously warring parties have been working to rebuild trust in some of the areas hardest hit by the war. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)