South Sudan’s government and rebel forces have exchanged accusations over which side broke a ceasefire, less than 24 hours after it began, dashing hopes of a swift end to the brutal conflict.
The ceasefire, aimed at stopping five weeks of bitter fighting in which thousands have died, began on Friday evening with both sides reporting clashes as the deadline approached.
Rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang told Al Jazeera the government was responsible for the breach.
“It is government forces who are breaking the ceasefire, not us,” he said. “The government has attacked our positions in Unity and Jonglei states and we fought back in self-defence. They attacked our positions and immediately accused us of breaching the ceasefire”.
But Ateny Wek Ateny, spokesman of President Salva Kiir, insisted they would honour the agreement.
“We are definitely going to maintain a ceasefire,” Wek said, adding that government forces had responded only in self-defence to rebel attacks. “All we hope is that both sides respect the peace deal.”
Also on Saturday, the army said the “White Army” rebels had launched an attack on its position in Mathiang, but would not pursue the rebels in respect of the ceasefire.
Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed in the fighting pitting forces loyal to Kiir against a loose coalition of army defectors and ethnic militia nominally headed by former vice president Riek Machar, a seasoned guerrilla fighter.
The fighting has been marked by atrocities on both sides with some 700,000 people forced from their homes in the impoverished nation, according to the United Nations.
On Saturday morning, in the first hours of the ceasefire, army spokesman Philip Aguer said the clashes appeared to have ended.
But just hours later, the government reported fresh rebel attacks.
“Rebel forces are still continuing attacking our forces,” Minister of Information Michael Makuei said, speaking to reporters as he arrived back from the talks in Ethiopia that hammered out the crucial deal. “Our forces… will have to defend themselves,” he added.
Despite concerns the bitter rivals may seek to fight on, both sides insist they are committed to the deal. But they have also said they doubt the other can fully control the forces on the ground.
“This is not strange, these are rebels and… rebels are indisciplined people, they have no regular forces, no central command,” Makuei said, although he added that the weeks of negotiation efforts in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa were not “wasted time”.
He did not give any details of the scale of the latest fighting, or where the reported clashes had taken place.