New fighting broke out in South Sudan on Sunday less than 48 hours after the country's president and the rebel leader agreed to a cease-fire that the U.S. secretary of state and U.N. secretary-general both worked to forge.
Aid leaders and analysts hailed Friday night's deal but some also voiced skepticism that it would translate to peace on the ground. Those fears were borne out Sunday as fighting again flared in a strategic oil town where horrific crimes against humanity have already occurred.
Each side blamed the other for restarting the violence.
South Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer said his forces had been attacked in two positions in oil-producing Unity State, one of them near Bentiu, where an ethnic massacre in April raised worries of a potential genocide.
"They attacked only six hours after the cease-fire came into effect," Aguer told Reuters, although he said the government’s army was able to repulse both assaults. All fighting was supposed to stop 24 hours after the signing late on Friday.
In rival accusations, rebel military spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said the army launched attacks in Unity state and Upper Nile state, another oil producing region. He said shelling on Upper Nile rebel positions began a few hours before the cease-fire deadline but continued after it into Sunday morning.
"The latest violations of the agreement to resolve the crisis in South Sudan shows that Kiir is either insincere or not in control of his forces," he told Reuters.
Humanitarian workers hoped Friday's deal would allow residents to return home and plant crops. More than 1.3 million people have fled their homes because of the fighting, and aid experts say that if residents don't plant crops by the end of May mass hunger is likely to set in — and possibly even famine.
The World Food Program (WFP) and Save the Children on Saturday released a nutritional analysis showing that several areas in Unity state, where Bentiu is located, have food needs at "alarming" levels, one step from famine. Up to 75 percent of the population there faces severe hunger. WFP says a "hunger catastrophe" will set in if food aid is not soon delivered to at least 3.2 million people.
If the conflict's second cease-fire falls apart, the efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will have been for naught. Both leaders flew into Juba, South Sudan's capital, in the last 10 days to push for an end to war. Mediators had demanded Kiir and Machar meet for face-to-face talks in Ethiopia this time, rather than leave any cease-fire to negotiators, to obtain their personal commitment to making it last.
Clashes erupted in South Sudan in December after months of tensions sparked by Kiir's decision in July to sack his long time rival Machar from the post of deputy president.
The conflict threatens to tear apart a nation that only became independent from Sudan in 2011. Deep ethnic divisions are partly to blame for the violence, which pits Kiir's Dinka people against the Nuer of Machar.
The fighting has killed thousands of people, often in what a new U.N. report last week said were gross violations of human rights "on a massive scale." In the two biggest massacres, hundreds of Nuer were slaughtered in a police holding cell in Juba in December. Nuer fighters slaughtered hundreds of people in Bentiu in April.