South Sudan rebel leader Machar returns to mark peace deal

JUBA (Reuters) - South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar returned to the capital Juba on Wednesday to celebrate a peace deal, more than two years after fierce fighting erupted in the city and forced him to flee the country.

To further reinforce the peace deal, President Salva Kiir ordered the release of a jailed advisor to Machar, and a spokesman to his rebel group.

Machar flew in with his wife and a small retinue but none of his troops - then met Kiir, his long-time rival, and a line-up of regional leaders who have spent years pressing the two men to end their civil war.

“We need peace,” Machar told thousands of people who gathered at a ceremony marking the accord that he, Kiir and other groups signed last month.

“We really pray that this peace agreement holds this time,” said 27-year old Juma Khamis in the crowd. Regional and Western powers alike have been exasperated by a string of failed ceasefires and deals.

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The world’s youngest nation plunged into conflict in 2013 after Kiir sacked Machar as vice president.

Troops loyal to both men clashed in the capital that December and ethnically charged fighting soon spread across the state, shutting down oil fields, forcing millions to flee and killing hundreds of thousands of people. [nL8N1WC3UB]

Kiir said he had ordered the release of an advisor and a spokesman to rebel leader Machar on Thursday.

Kiir said retired South African colonel William Endley, who was sentenced to death in February for trying to bring down the government, would be released.

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“I’ll release him tomorrow and he will be deported to his country,” he said, adding that rebel spokesman James Gatdet will also be released.

Gatdet had also been sentenced to death in February on charges of treason and incitement against the government.

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There have been sporadic incidences of fighting since the latest agreement was signed, but violence has largely died down.

Kiir hosted Wednesday’s ceremony near the mausoleum of national hero John Garang - the same spot where the country celebrated its independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of north-south war fueled by oil, ethnicity and religion.

Leaders from Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and Somalia looked on as traditional dancers entertained the crowds.

Machar fled to neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo in 2016 after fighting broke out again in the capital, wrecking an earlier peace deal and killing hundreds.

He later traveled to South Africa, where he was held under house arrest until earlier this year.

Under pressure from governments in East Africa and from United Nations and Western donors, Machar’s group, other rebel factions and the government last month signed a peace deal, under which he will again become vice president.

Reporting by Denis Dumo; Writing by Aaron Maasho; Editing by George Obulutsa, Richard Balmforth