The United Nations Security Council voted to bolster the UN's peacekeeping mission in South Sudan and help end the worsening conflict that has created at least one mass grave and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.
The council unanimously approved U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's request to add up to 5,500 soldiers and 423 police officers to the force of 7,900 uniformed personnel already authorized for the U.N. mission in South Sudan.
"Political dialogue is the only solution to this crisis," Ban told the council after the vote. "Now is the time for South Sudan's leaders to show their people and the world that they are committed to peace."
The world’s newest country, founded in 2011, South Sudan is at risk of breaking apart because of fighting that erupted on Dec. 15 between supporters of President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and his deposed vice president, Riek Machar of the rival Nuer group.
At least 500 people have been killed, with some 100,000 internally displaced and about 45,000 civilians seeking protection at U.N. camps in the country.
Troops and police from five other U.N. peacekeeping missions — in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, and the Abyei and Darfur areas of Sudan — will be transferred to South Sudan, says the council's resolution, which also authorizes Ban to generate "complementary force and asset."
Ban on Monday recommended sending three attack helicopters, three utility helicopters and one Lockheed Martin Corp. C-130 Hercules transport plane.
West Texas Intermediate crude oil rose for the fourth time in five days as the conflict in South Sudan forced a partial shutdown of its oil production facilities. South Sudan exports about 220,000 barrels a day of crude, pumped mainly by China National Petroleum Corp., Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd., and India's Oil & Natural Gas Corp.
The Obama administration has stepped up preparations for a possible evacuation of U.S. personnel from South Sudan by positioning about 150 Marines in nearby Djibouti, Benjamin Benson, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, said in an email Tuesday.
U.S. envoy Donald Booth met Monday with Kiir in the capital, Juba. The president expressed a willingness to begin talks with Machar "without preconditions, as soon as his counterpart was willing," Booth said.
"The United States emphasizes the urgency of the situation and stands ready to support these efforts," Booth said on a conference call.
Fighting broke out in South Sudan when gunmen attacked the presidential palace in Juba.
Machar, who is being hunted by government security forces, has demanded that Kiir step down for failing to unite the nation. Kiir fired Machar and the rest of his cabinet in July.
The two sides have agreed to an offer by neighboring Kenya to host peace talks, Kenyan Foreign Ministry Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho said Monday in Nairobi.
Rebel forces loyal to Machar said they have captured crude-producing Unity state as the government evacuated some oil workers and plans a partial shutdown of facilities.
Fighters led by General James Kong Chol seized Bentiu, the Unity state's capital, and other parts of the northern region on Saturday, and have aligned themselves with Machar, Chol said in a phone interview Sunday.
It was the second state to fall to anti-government forces since Kiir's administration lost control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei province, to a group headed by Gen. Peter Gatdet Yak last Wednesday. Chol and Yak previously headed government forces in the two states.
"We're controlling the area of Unity state," Chol said from Bentiu. "My government planned to kill me, and I have nowhere to go. I decided to join Riek Machar."
The U.N. discovered a mass grave in Bentiu amid reports of at least two others in Juba, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an emailed statement Tuesday.
A U.N. official who visited the Bentiu site reported at least 75 bodies, Pillay's spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell said in an email Tuesday, adding that the U.N. is working to verify reports of two other graves in Juba.
Pillay also expressed serious concern over reports that several hundred civilians were arrested during house-to-house searches and from various hotels in Juba. There also were reports that hundreds of members of the South Sudan National Police Service were ordered to be disarmed and arrested at police stations across Juba, according to the U.N. statement.
South Sudan's oil-producing Upper Nile state is also facing tensions after gunmen attacked government forces in Nasir county, Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the national army, said by phone Sunday. He said he had no further information.
Kiir said yesterday he agreed to a request by the six-nation Intergovernmental Authority on Development to help mediate an end to the crisis.
"We're ready for any dialogue, but Dr. Machar must come to the table without any preconditions," he told lawmakers in Juba. "Through dialogue I think we can resolve this misunderstanding very quickly."
South Sudan seceded from neighboring Sudan in July 2011 and took three-quarters of the formerly united country's oil output. The landlocked country's oil provides more than 95 percent of government revenue.
South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa's biggest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data. Its low-sulfur crude is prized by Japanese buyers as a cleaner-burning fuel for power generation.
ONGC repatriated its 11 employees, and the company's joint venture has shut down oilfields in South Sudan that were producing about 40,000 barrels per day, Finance Director S.P. Garg said in a phone interview.
Chol said there is "no interruption to oil" production in the country. "Oil is still flowing," he said.
Petroleum Minister Stephen Dhieu Dau said on Sunday that the evacuation of oil workers from the country was temporary and oil output from Upper Nile was flowing normally.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Toby Lanzer estimated the country will need $1.1 billion of humanitarian aid in 2014 because 62,000 people were displaced in the past week's violence.
Four U.S. service members suffered gunshot wounds on Saturday while on flights to evacuate Americans from Bor. The United Nations had previously sent helicopters to evacuate staff from South Sudan, and one was hit and forced to land on Friday, The Associated Press reported.
About 380 U.S. officials and private citizens have been evacuated to Nairobi and other locations, along with about 300 others, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in an emailed statement Sunday.
President Barack Obama sent a letter to Congress on Sunday saying he "may take further action to support the security of U.S. citizens, personnel, and property, including our embassy" in South Sudan.
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