South Sudan balks at freeing political prisoners

U.S., EU say release would spur cease-fire

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- South Sudan's government said Sunday that it won't bow to international pressure and immediately release politicians detained following an alleged attempted coup last month as more of its armed forces defect to rebels.

"We thought the international community would come in support of us," Information Minister Michael Makuei told reporters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where talks are taking place to end a 3-week-old conflict in the neighboring African country. "There is no way we can be asked to release people who are arrested and charged." Freeing the detainees would set a "bad precedent."

The United States and the European Union said Saturday that 11 politicians imprisoned in South Sudan should be freed to help warring parties reach a cease-fire and a political solution. The releases should not be a "precondition" for negotiations being mediated by East African nations, Mr. Makuei said.

Conflict broke out Dec. 15 after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup. Violence spread swiftly, pitting members of Mr. Kiir's ethnic Dinka community against Mr. Machar's Nuer group.

"Thousands" of people have died and about 200,000 have been displaced, according to United Nations estimates.

Platoons defected from Yei, about 170 kilometers from the capital Juba, and a town nearby, army spokesman Philip Aguer said Sunday. Around 600 Nuer soldiers broke away from government troops in Maridi, the capital of Western Equatoria, before clashing with the army at Rokon, he said. Government forces are advancing on the capital of Jonglei state Bor, which is held by rebels, Mr. Aguer said.

Gen. Abraham Jongroor Machar was killed Sunday in fighting near Pariak, around 14 miles south of Bor, Defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk said. The fighting must stop for the government to move on to negotiations on a monitored cease-fire, Mr. Makuei said.

The leaders of the two delegations met Sunday to discuss negotiations, rebel spokesman Yohanis Musa Pouk said. Mr. Machar and his allies want the release of all charged with coup-plotting by Mr. Kiir's government and for those individuals to be given freedom of movement, Taban Deng Gai, head of the negotiating team for the rebels, said Saturday. The politicians were imprisoned for expressing a "political opinion," he said.

Those detained include Pagan Amum, former secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement. Mr. Kiir sacked his Cabinet in July, including Mr. Machar. Mr. Machar, Mr. Amum and Rebecca Garang, the widow of rebel leader John Garang, declared an intention this year to challenge Mr. Kiir for the chairmanship of the ruling party. Mr. Machar and allies accuse Mr. Kiir of increasingly acting like a dictator.

Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir will travel today to Juba to discuss the crisis with Mr. Kiir, state-owned Sudan Radio said in a text message. Efforts to mediate a truce are being led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a group of eight East African nations including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.


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