July 27, (JUBA) – A top military officer has warned the South Sudanese army (SPLA) not to be deterred by the threat of sanctions, saying it must remain focused on its constitutional duties and responsibilities to defend the country.
- SPLA Maj. Gen. Marial Chanuong Yol (R), along with rebel commander Peter Gadet, were hit with US sanctions in May for their role in the South Sudan conflict (Photo: Reuturs/Goran Tomasevic)
Speaking to troops over the weekend, the army chief of general staff, Paul Malong Awan, acknowledged the “enormous challenges” facing the SPLA, but said troops must remain committed to restoring stability.
“I want us to still remember that we have this responsibility to defend the country. We should not therefore be deterred by the threats with the sanctions to abdicate our responsibilities,” he said.
Earlier this month, the European Union imposed sanctions on army commander Santino Deng and rebel chief Peter Gadet over their alleged links to atrocities committed during the more than seven-month-long conflict.
The move came after a US decision in May to slap sanctions two other military officials from both sides.
During the weekend’s high-level briefing, Awan told senior military officers, including his deputy of operations, Lt. Gen. James Ajonga Unguec Mawut Unguec, and commander of the presidential guard force Maj. Gen. Marial Chinduong Yol that sanctions were being used as a ploy to undermine the role and responsibilities of the army, and should not stop them carrying out their duties.
The top military officer claimed that threats of further targeted sanctions were part of a bigger scheme against the government.
“When someone comes and starts beating your child and you keep quiet, the next thing this person would do if you have not asked the reason for beating the child is going to your wife and start beating again and if you don’t ask, he will come to you, and by the time he is coming to you he has already known how to handle you. This is the clear intention of these threats and they think we don’t know,” said Awan.
He said he had since spoken to Deng to provide assurances that the government stood with him.
“I told him it was just a ploy to frustrate our efforts so that we abdicate our responsibilities, which is not acceptable. Even in those countries, they know the duty of the army is to defend the country from any aggression, including any attempt to remove and install a system through means which are not constitutional,” he said.
Deng, the commander of the SPLA third infantry division, reportedly took part in May’s recapture of Unity state capital Bentiu in violation of a January ceasefire agreement signed by the warring parties.
Under the sanctions, Both Deng and Gadet will be banned from travelling in EU member states and any assets they may have in the EU zone will be frozen.
The EU termed the restrictive measures as “a first step”, calling on the warring parties to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict.
The US sanctions targeted Gadet and the commander of the presidential guard unit, Marial Chanuong, who were described by the US administration as being “responsible for perpetrating unthinkable violence against civilians”.
Awan, a close ally of president Salva Kiir Mayardit, told reporters last week that the army was planning to launch a military offensive against rebels aligned with former vice president Riek Machar, accusing rebels of continuing to attack government positions.
“Do not lift a foot to leave your positions to attack even if you see them at walking distance, but if they are the ones carrying out the attack on you, then you have the right to defend yourself and if the situation requires, push them out completely,” Awan told soldiers at a briefing in Upper Nile state capital.
There has been renewed fighting over the past week in different areas, including the strategic Upper Nile state town of Nasir, with both sides claiming to be in control.
He stressed that recent troops reinforcements in conflict-affected areas in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states did not constitute a violation of the ceasefire agreement signed by the warring parties, but part of defensive measures aimed at protecting the local population from harm.
Military sources say more than 1,200 fighters have been mobilised from different regions in the country to Nasir town and surrounding areas to fence it off from rebels, using commercial flights and military carriers.