A plane carrying South Sudan's former vice president Riek Machar has landed in Juba, returning the rebel leader to the capital of the world's youngest country more than two years after war broke out between his forces and President Salva Kiir's government. His return solidifies the formation of a unity government established by the internationally-orchestrated peace deal brokered between the two sides last August.
Officials waited on the tarmac to welcome Machar as he exited the plane at the Juba International Airport on Tuesday, making his way to the capital for the first time since December 2013 when the conflict began. The country gained independence from Sudan in 2011 through a referendum vote.
"I am happy with the welcome that I have seen at the airport. I hope with my arrival we shall finish with the obstacles and get into the implementation of the government," Machar told journalists upon his arrival to the airport, which was reportedly under tight security.
"There are challenges that we need to overcome. The first challenge is the stabilisation of the security situation of the country. The second is the challenge is the stabilization of the economy."
Members of his opposition party, Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), were also in attendance at the airport welcome party.
The leader then made his way to the presidential palace to officially take up his former role as first vice president.
"Now that Dr. Riek has taken the oath of the first vice president, we will immediately proceed with the establishment of the transitional government of national unity," Kiir said following Machar's swearing in. "I ask you to join me and my brother Riek Machar in peace and reconciliation."
Kiir dismissed Machar from the same post in mid-2013, with conflict erupting in the East African country several months later. The government accused forces loyal to Machar of attempting to carry out a coup, but he has denied these accusations. Kiir is of Dinka ethnicity while Machar is a Nuer, and the two leaders have largely populated their forces with their respective ethnic groups.
Machar's highly anticipated arrival occurred after more than a week of delays. The rebel leader had initially planned to fly from Gambela airport in Ethiopia on Monday, April 18, for what was seen as the final phase of the peace process between the two sides. His trip was stalled over airport clearances and a disagreement about how many weapons he could take with him, forcing him to miss the April 23 deadline set by the international community.
The US, which is a major donor to the young nation, condemned the delays and criticized both sides for stalling the peace process. Machar claimed the US had also pulled funding for his flight to Juba.
The government and rebels signed the peace deal in August 2015 with the aim of ending a conflict that has has displaced hundreds of thousands. As part of the peace process, the two camps agreed to a ceasefire and the formation of a unity government that would restore Machar to office.
Despite the peace agreement, various ceasefire violations have reportedly occurred over recent months, from both sides.
Throughout the conflict, the UN has documented human rights violations and atrocities committed by both sides, including mass rape, castration, forced cannibalism, and civilians being burned alive.
While optimism and celebration marked the country's 2011 declaration of independence from Sudan, the two-and-a-half-year conflict has had a devastating impact on its people and the oil sector on which its economy in based. Famine has been a constant threat, while oil production has dropped by more than 33 percent since fighting erupted.
Many see the success of the peace deal as the key to improving the country's humanitarian situation. Following Machar's landing in Juba, Oxfam's country director Zlatko Gegic called the development a positive step. He urged both parties to uphold their commitment and respect the ceasefire.
"Over four months late, the transitional government is desperately needed to deliver lasting peace, reconciliation and justice for the people of South Sudan," Gegic said in a statement put on on Tuesday by the international aid confederation. "The people of South Sudan deserve unimpeded access to humanitarian services, guarantees of safety and protection and a voice in shaping the country's future."