NAIROBI, Kenya – 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 for a strategic oil town where horrific crimes against humanity have already occurred.
Each side blamed the other for re-starting the violence.
South Sudan Defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juk said rebels attacked government positions near Bentiu at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. He said government troops killed 27 rebels and captured some arms.
"At 8:30 they also attacked our position ... along the road between Bentiu and the Thar Jath oil fields. Our forces repulsed them," he said.
An opposition spokesman, Brig. Gen. Lul Ruai Kong, said government forces attacked rebels in two states. He said government fighters were in "active combat" with opposition troops around Bentiu. Kong said fighters from Sudanese militias were aiding government troops around Bentiu.
"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," Kong said in a statement. He said the international community and IGAD, a regional bloc that brokered Friday's peace deal, should know that Kiir's forces were first to violate the agreement.
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 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 overall that 3.2 million people need food aid and that a "hunger catastrophe" will set in if food aid is not soon delivered.
Still, given that a January cease-fire fell apart immediately after it was signed, many observers feared Friday's deal would not hold.
John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Washington-based Enough Project, which does advocacy work in eastern and central Africa, said after the peace deal that it wasn't clear if the parties were serious. He noted that troops were poised to attack each other in a number of locations.
If the conflict's second cease-fire truly does fall apart, the efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will have been moot. Both leaders flew into Juba, South Sudan's capital, in the last 10 days to push for an end to war.
The fighting, which has often pitted Kiir's ethnic Dinka against Machar's ethnic Nuer, 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.
South Sudan is a largely Christian and animist nation that broke off from the Muslim-dominated Sudan after a 2011 referendum.