South Sudan’s former vice president and opposition leader Riek Machar has left the country for a neighbouring state, opposition officials said, several weeks after he withdrew from the capital Juba during fierce fighting with government troops.
Spokesman James Gatdet Dak on Thursday declined to disclose Machar’s whereabouts. A statement issued by the leadership of the SPLA In Opposition said he had left on Wednesday to a “safe country within the region”.
Mr. Machar was flown by the United Nations to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a Western diplomat said, giving no details.
A Machar aide said later on Thursday that the former vice president was in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“Riek Machar is currently in DRC, in Kinshasa, and wants to go as soon as possible to Ethiopia,” the official told the AFP news agency.
Machar led a two-year rebellion against forces loyal to his longtime rival President Salva Kiir before the two sides reached a peace deal in August 2015. Under the deal, Machar returned to Juba in April to resume his role as vice president.
His flight from South Sudan comes weeks after the collapse of an internationally brokered power-sharing deal aimed at calming the long-running feud between him and Mr. Kiir, a quarrel that has mired South Sudan in almost constant conflict since it became an independent nation in 2011.
Spokesman Gatdet Dak, writing on his Facebook page, said opposition fighters had “successfully relocated our leader to a neighbouring country where he will now have unhindered access to the rest of the world and the media”.
Since the outbreak of fighting in July, Kiir has sacked Machar from his post and appointed Taban Deng Gai, a former opposition negotiator who broke ranks with Machar, as vice president.
The estimated 40,000 troops loyal to Machar are also flee the capital Juba and go into hiding.
The United Nations told Kiir that any political changes must be consistent with the peace deal, which stated that the vice president must be chosen by the South Sudan Armed Opposition.
Last week, the UN Security Council approved the deployment of an additional 4,000-strong peacekeeping force in South Sudan, after the July infighting threatened to send the country back to all-out civil war.
South Sudan initially rejected the resolution, claiming it “seriously undermines” its sovereignty, but later softened its stance.
Ateny Wek Ateny, presidential spokesman, said the government will accept the force, but only if it can negotiate its size, mandate, weapons and the contributing countries.
The nearly three-year conflict in the world’s youngest nation has left nearly three million people homeless and forced 1 million to flee to neighboring states. Oil production has dropped by half to 120,000 barrels a day, leaving the crude-dependent nation struggling for revenue to pay troops and finance basic imports, including food.
The U.S. has spent $1.6 billion trying to quell the escalating violence, with little success.
This week, the U.S. envoy to the U.N., Samantha Power, called for an investigation into allegations that Sudanese troops gang-raped, beat and robbed aid workers during at attack on a hotel compound in Juba on July 11.
The U.N. said Tuesday it was also looking into accusations that U.N. peacekeepers had failed to respond to the attack.
President Kiir, whose forces now fully control the capital, has sought to consolidate his power, replacing Mr. Machar with Taban Deng Gai and calling for early elections, despite pleas from the international community.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said Wednesday that Mr. Kiir’s “unilateral actions are of great concern” to the U.S. and risk undermining the truce.