South Sudan opposition forces seized a helicopter of the regional monitoring and verification teams early Sunday and a team member has reportedly died. The incident happened just hours before the East African bloc IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) opened a summit in Ethiopia on the fighting in South Sudan.
Opposition forces fighting the South Sudan government seized the helicopter and monitors when they landed near Bentiu in Unity State during a routine visit.
IGAD’s lead mediator Seyoum Mesfin condemned the action. “This is in violation of the cessation of hostilities agreement. And they will bear the consequences. They will be accountable for their action,” said Mesfin.
Opposition spokesman Mabior Garang said there was confusion about clearances for the helicopter, but the helicopter and team members have been released. He said the person, who died, died of natural causes.
IGAD deployed the monitoring and verification teams to map where clashes are taking place and monitor if both sides are abiding by signed agreements. Troops of the East African grouping are embedded in the United Nations mission and their mandate also includes protecting these monitoring and verification teams.
Regional leaders are meeting later Sunday in Ethiopia to continue talks on the South Sudan conflict. Negotiations between the warring sides have been ongoing and several agreements were signed, including a cessation of hostilities in January, but both sides have violated that agreement.
The summit agenda contained two critical issues, said lead mediator Mesfin.
“One, on which they failed the deadline, establishment of the transitional government and the other is also the signing matrix for the disengagement of the troops to effectively end the fighting and the killings. It is very imperative because there is an impending ... Very imperative, there is impending humanitarian crisis in South Sudan,“ he said.
Fighting in South Sudan started last December after a political rift between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar. The fighting has left hundreds of thousands dead. More than a million people are displaced and close to 200,000 have sought refuge in camps in Ethiopia.