The embassies of Britain, Norway, and the United States have expressed grave concerns about possible new fighting in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State. The warning by the so-called Troika Embassies comes just days ahead of Pope Francis’ first visit to South Sudan on Friday for what the Vatican is calling a pilgrimage of peace.
Serious security alarms have been sounded barely 24 hours before Pope Francis arrives in South Sudan’s capital for what is seen as an attempt by Vatican to find a lasting peace in the war-torn nation.
Already, foreign embassies have sent out warnings of a possible outbreak of war in parts of the country.
The U.S., UK and Norway, who are also peace guarantors for South Sudan’s revitalized transitional government, said violence may break out in Upper Nile, the northeastern state that borders Ethiopia and Sudan on the north.
U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan Michael Adler told reporters in Juba that the Troika Embassies will always stand with those who call and work for peace in South Sudan.
“In that regard, we note with grave concern indications of preparation for renewed fighting in Upper Nile State. South Sudanese transitional leaders and political actors in Juba have a responsibility to act to prevent this and to find peaceful and sustainable solutions.”
Michael English of UNMISS, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, said he is concerned about reports of a military buildup in an area under the control of a militia group — the Agwelek forces. The group is under the command of former South Sudanese army general turned rebel, Johnson Olony.
Agwelek, a militia perceived to be friendly to the national army, has denied these allegations.
Last year, the militia group signed an agreement with the national government to integrate part of their forces into the national army.
Paul Achot is head of the Agwelek delegation to Juba, where he’s talking with government officials about implementing the agreement signed between Agwelek and the army in January 2022.
“There is no preparation of any sort, from our side, to go and attack anybody,” he said. “So I was surprised myself to hear the UNMISS, who is supposed to be neutral, pointing fingers against us, saying that we are preparing to go and attack other forces.”
In 2022, fighting between Agwelek and other militias displaced over 60,000 people.
The South Sudanese army says it is ready to defend the population in case of renewed clashes.
Meanwhile, the government said Thursday that it will deploy over 5,000 security personnel in Juba to ensure calm during the pope’s visit.
Pope Francis is coming to Juba to deliver a message of peace and reconciliation in a country still struggling with inter-communal violence. This will be a continuation of a process that began in 2019 when the pope hosted then-political foes President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar at the Vatican.
Pope Francis will be accompanied on the ecumenical visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.