By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
December 29, 2013 (ADDIS ABABA) – As fears rise of a possible civil war in South Sudan, Ethiopia said it has began evacuating hundreds of its citizens from conflict-hit regions of the country.
- A US army soldier stands guard as an army aircraft on the runway readies to evacuate American nationals who are leaving due to recent unrest and violence in South Sudan, on December 21, 2013, in Juba (AFP Photo/Samir Bol)
Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs said on Sunday that over 650 Ethiopians have been transported back home as fierce fighting between government forces and rebels led by sacked vice president Riek Machar continues in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states.
The spokesperson of the foreign affairs ministry, Dina Mufti, told reporters that the Ethiopians were evacuated from Nasir town of Upper Nile state and transported to bordering Gambella region of Ethiopia, where they are being sheltered temporarily.
Mufti said 300 Ethiopians have also been flown from Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, on UN helicopters. The capital has been relatively stable for over a week, after fighting with the army began on 15 December.
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir accused Machar and others of staging of coup attempt but this has been strongly denied. Conflict spread to Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states with many members of the army defecting.
The United Nations says that over 100,000 people have been displaced and over 1,000 people killed, including some Ethiopians. Around 60,000 people have taken refugee at UN peacekeeping bases.
If current situations in South Sudan do not improve, Mufti said, Ethiopian nationals who have been airlifted to Juba will be transported from the capital.
An additional 800 Ethiopians were also been evacuated from Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, to Heglig, an oil field controlled by Sudan on South Sudan’s northern border.
Officials said returnees are receiving the necessary support at Gambela regional state until they are reunited with their families in different parts of the country.
To receive the returnees, the Ethiopian government has established a joint task force drawn from, the ministry of foreign affairs, National Information and Security Service, Administration for the Refugee and Returnees Affairs as well as from the Federal Police and Disaster Prevention.
The Ethiopian government said it is doing everything possible to ensure the safety of its citizens in South Sudan, where an estimated 15,000 of its citizens live.
There is growing international pressure on Kiir and Machar - who was sacked in July - to end the ongoing hostility and engage in peace talks to prevent the nation from sliding into further inter-ethnic violence.
The South Sudanese government has said it is open to talks without preconditions but Machar has demanded that all political detainees are released before negotiations commence.
Leaders from the East Africa member states of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have given the two rivals until 31 December to end hostilities and begin peace talks.
If the two sides failed to do so, the leaders warned that they would be forced to take unspecified action against them.
Other East African nations, as well as European and North American countries, have evacuated hundreds of their nationals from South Sudan since the fighting began.
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