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Africa

Fate of South Sudanese rebels in DR Congo hangs in the balance

media Fighters loyal to Machar sit in a vehicle at Juba airport on 20 April 2016. Photo: Carl De Souza/AFP

The future of some 700 South Sudanese rebel fighters loyal to former vice president Riek Machar remains unclear after Congolese authorities said they no longer wanted them on their territory. The UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo says it is in discussions on what to do with the disarmed members of the opposition group, while the rebels themselves say they want their troops returned to South Sudan.

“There’s no final decision made on this, discussions are ongoing,” Felix Prosper Basse, spokesperson, UN mission in the DRC (Monusco), told RFI on Wednesday. “Something’s for sure, they need to be out of the DRC.”

The Congolese government had earlier said that it could no longer accept the presence of armed groups in the country. Crispin Atama Tabe, the Congolese defence minister, told the head of Monusco in a diplomatic note seen by RFI that there was a risk of foreign armed groups fomenting conflict against their country of origin.

The rebel fighters accompanied their leader Riek Machar into the DRC when he fled across the South Sudanese border in August. Monusco provided urgent medical care and humanitarian assistance to Machar after his group spent several days in Garamba national park.

After extracting Machar, the UN then carried out “several rotations” to airlift the rest of his fighters who were in a “very critical situation”, according to Monusco spokesperson Basse. Machar’s troops were disarmed “voluntarily” and transported to UN bases in Dungu, Bunia and Munigi near Goma where they remain under Monusco surveillance.

Machar eventually went to Khartoum, but 700 of his fighters were held in the DRC at Monusco bases. Following the decision from the Congolese that the fighters must leave the country, the South Sudanese rebel group has told RFI that it would like their fighters to be returned home if possible.

“They should be brought to our headquarters in Pagak [Upper Nile state, South Sudan],” said James Gatdet Dak, spokesperson, Sudan People's Liberation Movement – In Opposition (SPLM-IO). “If they [the UN] can make such an arrangement, we’ll appreciate it, because we want them back to our headquarters in Pagak,” added Dak.

Monusco has not ruled out transferring the fighters to a third-party country, according to Basse, and the UN mission has not yet “reached the point” where they can consider the question of whether the SPLM-IO fighters will be given back their weapons.

“We confined them in our bases, just to prevent any other kind of situation, to reduce the threat that this may pose,” said Basse. There had been some concerns that the presence of the South Sudanese in the eastern DRC may set back efforts to try and stop armed conflict in the region involving other groups.

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