Divided army: In South Sudan, the military is at war with itself

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Serious fighting approaching civil war has broken out between ethnic factions in the army of newly independent South Sudan. Only with difficulty can the United States afford to look the other way.

America is South Sudan’s largest external aid donor, having provided more than $11 billion in recent years. It also played an important role in obtaining South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011.

Some of the U.S. aid is military equipment and training, estimated at more than $270 million, which the South Sudanese are now using to fight each other. In October President Barack Obama had to waive a prohibition in the U.S. Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 so that military aid could continue to flow to South Sudan, even though it uses child soldiers.

South Sudan, with a population of 9 million, borders on the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. It has oil, which it markets through Sudan. Fighting there risks spreading to neighboring countries.

The problem in South Sudan is between Dinka tribesmen, 15 percent of the population, and Nuer tribesmen, 10 percent of the population — many of whom are members of the army. President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, fired Riek Machar, a Nuer, as vice president in July. Differences between the two groups are long-standing and turn frequently on disputes over cattle or land.

The conflict between the two elements of the armed forces broke out in Juba, the capital, and has spread to other towns. The United Nations said that up to 500 have been killed, including three of its peacekeepers from India. Some Americans, including U.S. Embassy personnel, have been evacuated from Juba.

Both sides need to be told by an authoritative U.S. official that aid will stop immediately if the fighting goes on.

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