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U.S. criticizes Machar for failing to return to South Sudan capital

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

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States voiced dismay on Tuesday at rebel leader Riek Machar’s failure to return to South Sudan’s capital to form a unity government under a peace deal aimed at ending more than two years of violence.

Machar was to arrive in Juba on Monday and to be sworn in as first vice president under an August peace deal that called for a transitional national government. A spokesman for his rebel group on Monday said logistical reasons had delayed his return.

Thousands of people have been killed since the conflict erupted in December 2013 after a power struggle between Machar, an ethnic Nuer, and President Salva Kiir, his long-time rival from the dominant Dinka group.

The fighting in the country, which seceded from Sudan in 2011, has often run along ethnic lines, unsettling an already volatile region.

“The United States is deeply disappointed by Riek Machar’s failure to return to South Sudan’s capital of Juba today to form the Transitional Government of National Unity,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Kirby said the failure to return represents a “willful decision” by Machar not to abide by his own commitments to implement the agreement on the resolution of the conflict.

“His failure to go to Juba despite efforts from the international community places the people of South Sudan at risk of further conflict and suffering, and undermines the peace agreements reform pillars, which are demilitarizing South Sudan, injecting transparency of public finances and pursuing justice and reconciliation,” Kirby added.

The spokesman called on the government “to exercise maximum flexibility for the sake of peace” and urged Machar to return to Juba, saying it would coordinate with its partners how to respond “to this obstruction of the peace process” by Machar.

Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Alan Crosby