South Sudan’s former vice president and opposition leader Riek Machar “is in the care” of the authorities in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the United Nations has said, several weeks after he withdrew from the capital Juba during fierce fighting with government troops.
The news on Thursday came after a statement by the leadership of the SPLA In Opposition party said Machar had left South Sudan on Wednesday to a “safe country within the region”, without giving any further details on his exact whereabouts.
“We were aware yesterday of the presence of Riek Machar in DRC,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said on Thursday.
“At that point the UN Mission contacted the authorities in the DRC who in turn requested MONUSCO [UN’s mission in the DRC] to facilitate his extraction and his transfer to the care of the DRC.
“We have undergone an extraction operation and so he is currently in the care of the authorities in the DRC.”
A DRC government spokesman, however, told Al Jazeera later on Thursday that they had not been officially informed of Machar’s presence in the country.
“They said they are aware that he is in one of the border areas of DRC but they have no official information of Machar being under their care, which is contradictory to the statement of the UN,” Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from Juba, said.
Earlier on Thursday, a Machar aide told the AFP news agency that the former vice president was in the DRC capital, Kinshasa, and wanted “to go as soon as possible to Ethiopia”.
Machar led a two-year rebellion against forces loyal to his longtime rival President Salva Kiir before the two sides reached a peace deal in August 2015. Under the deal, Machar returned to Juba in April to resume his role as vice president.
But fighting flared last month, leading Machar to withdraw with his forces from Juba around mid-July.
“Throughout that period, from July up to yesterday, nobody knew where he was,” Al Jazeera’s Morgan said.
Since the outbreak of fighting in July, Kiir has sacked Machar from his post and appointed Taban Deng Gai, a former opposition negotiator who broke ranks with Machar, as vice president.
The UN told Kiir that any political changes must be consistent with the peace deal, which stated that the vice president must be chosen by the South Sudan Armed Opposition.
Last week, the UN Security Council approved the deployment of an additional 4,000-strong peacekeeping force in South Sudan, after the July infighting threatened to send the country back to all-out civil war.
South Sudan’s President Kiir told Al Jazeera on Sunday that it had not yet closed the door on a UN protection force.
Ateny Wek Ateny, the presidential spokesman, said the government will accept the force, but only if it can negotiate its size, mandate, weapons and the contributing countries.
The civil war in South Sudan began in December 2013 when government forces loyal to President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, battled rebels led by Machar, a Nuer.
Tens of thousands of people were killed in the fighting and more than two million people were displaced.