March 27, 2018 / 2:07 PM / 7 months ago

East African bloc says South Sudan rebel Machar should be freed from house arrest

NAIROBI (Reuters) - The East African bloc IGAD has said South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar should be released from house arrest in South Africa as soon as possible on condition he renounces violence, amid signs of mounting diplomatic pressure on the Juba government.

FILE PHOTO: South Sudan's opposition leader Riek Machar attends a briefing ahead of his return to South Sudan as vice president, in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, April 9, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Machar, who has been held in South Africa since late 2016, should “be allowed to relocate to any country outside the region and not neighboring South Sudan”, read a statement issued after a meeting on Monday of officials from the eight countries in the bloc.

IGAD said it had designated officials to decide on a third country. It was unclear why a third country that does not border South Sudan would be preferable to South Africa.

There was no immediate comment from South Africa’s foreign ministry.

South Sudan government spokesman Michael Makuei Lueth said Juba had no problem with the bloc’s decision, but that Machar should not be allowed to take part in peace talks in Addis Ababa.

A spokesman for Machar’s SPLM-IO rebel group said it was reviewing IGAD’s statement and would respond later.

Civil war broke out in oil-rich South Sudan in 2013, when troops loyal to President Salva Kiir clashed with forces loyal to Machar, then the vice president.

Tens of thousands have been killed since. Oil production has been slashed. About a third of the population of 12 million have been forced from their homes.

The warring parties signed a ceasefire in December in the Ethiopian capital, but it was violated within hours. A new round of talks is scheduled for late next month.

The bloc also announced that it wanted to impose targeted sanctions on individuals violating the latest peace deal or otherwise disrupting it, but referred the matter to the African Union.

Last month, the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said it was open to imposing sanctions on leaders violating the ceasefire in South Sudan.

His comments followed a chorus of other calls for action against those stoking the conflict.

The United States imposed a unilateral arms embargo last month but has been unable to convince the 15-member U.N. Security Council to impose one.

Reporting by Denis Dumo in Juba, Maggie Fick in Nairobi and Ed Cropley in Johannesburg; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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