South Sudan president Kiir grants Machar, other rebels amnesty

JUBA (Reuters) - President Salva Kiir granted a general amnesty to rebels in South Sudan’s civil war, including his former deputy Riek Machar, as a rights organization said authorities in Africa’s youngest country should also free its unarmed critics.

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The amnesty order was read out on state-run television late on Wednesday, three days after Kiir, SPLM-IO leader Machar and the heads of other groups signed a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

A political row between Kiir and Machar degenerated in 2013 into a war that has killed tens of thousands, forced a quarter of the population to flee their homes and wrecked the country’s oil-dependent economy.

The conflict has often been fought along ethnic lines. Previous deals to end it have failed, including one in 2015 that briefly halted hostilities but fell apart after Machar returned to the capital Juba the following year.

SPLM-IO is the largest of the rebel groups fighting Kiir’s government, and fighters allied to it control several areas close to the capital. Other anti-government groups have also emerged, some of which have fought against each other.

Lam Paul Gabriel, SPLM-IO’s deputy military spokesman, said the amnesty will only be genuine once Kiir observes all the conditions agreed upon in the deal signed on Sunday.

“Machar can only come to Juba after the pre-interim period when the unified forces are deployed in Juba and other major towns in South Sudan,” he said.

Machar was freed this year from house arrest in South Africa where he had been held since fleeing South Sudan in 2016.

“It will now give Machar much confidence, including others (who are) estranged a genuine reason to return to the country without the fear of the replication of the 2016 incident,” Majak Daniel, a Juba-based journalist, told Reuters.

Human Rights Watch called on Thursday for the release of a number of government critics jailed by the intelligence services, including Peter Biar Ajak, a prominent economist who has criticized both sides in the war.

“South Sudanese authorities should release everyone being held arbitrarily and change the way the national security agency operates,” Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at the New York-based rights organization said in a statement.

Biar, a country director for the London School of Economics’ International Growth Centre and a former World Bank economist, was arrested by officers of the agency in July.

“A lot still is needed such as the cessation of hostilities and ending the war of words,” said Samuel, a 32-year-old resident of Juba.

Reporting by Denis Dumo; Writing by George Obulutsa, Editing by William Maclean