The president of war-ravaged South Sudan Salva Kiir declared a unilateral ceasefire on Monday and promised to release political prisoners, but with no sign of a political deal with rebels it was not clear whether a truce would take hold.
South Sudan has been mired in a civil war since 2013, when President Kiir fired his deputy, Riek Machar. The conflict, fanned by ethnic rivalries, has sparked Africa’s worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide and plunged part of the country into famine.
“I directed the prosecutor general to immediately review the cases of those who have committed crime against the state, commonly known as political prisoners, and ensure the necessary steps taken are taken to lead their release,” Kiir said in a speech in the capital, Juba.
“I am also declaring unilateral ceasefire effective from today.”
South Sudan analysts expressed scepticism that Kiir’s announcement would lead to long-lasting peace.
Kiir has declared ceasefires before and he has yet to release any political prisoners, said Alan Boswell, a South Sudan expert who authored a paper for the Small Arms Survey on the most recent failed peace deal in 2016.
Kiir’s speech offered no hint that he was willing to negotiate with the disparate rebel groups, the largest of which is led by Machar, Boswell said.
NAN reports that on May 18, Kiir said ceasefire remained difficult to enforce due to constant violations by rebels.
This remark followed renewed clashes on May 16 in the border town of Yei that left four soldiers dead.
“Even if we were to declare a unilateral ceasefire which people are talking about; you cannot declare ceasefire for yourself.
“You declare ceasefire so that two sides respect it all, and unilateral cease fire is not binding on the other side, people must understand this”, he said in Juba.
Kiir directed the South Sudan army (SPLA), to be ready to defend their positions when faced with aggression from the rebels.
“I make sure that I don’t violate my ceasefire but I have the right to defend myself if I am attacked by anybody.
“You cannot raise your hands and say we have ceasefire so please (rebels) don’t attack us”, he said.
The South Sudanese leader urged citizens including the armed opposition to embrace nationalism and patriotism to preserve the gains of the more than two decades of war that won independence from northern neighbour Sudan in 2011.
Kiir also scoffed at critics that have dismissed the upcoming national dialogue as lacking inclusivity and credibility.
South Sudan descended into violence in December 2013 after political dispute between President Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar led to fighting that pitted mostly Dinka ethnic soldiers loyal to Kiir against Machar’s Nuer ethnic group.
The 2015 peace agreement to end the violence was again violated in July 2016 when the rival factions resumed fighting in the capital forcing the rebel leader Machar to flee into exile.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands and displaced over two million from their homes, and forced more than 1.5 million to flee into neighbouring countries.