South Sudan's Salva Kiir sacks cabinet
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South Sudan's President, Salva Kiir, on Wednesday sacked his entire cabinet, including his main political rival Riek Machar. The move raises fears of political instability in a country riven by ethnic rivalries and still reeling from decades of war.
Heavily armed South Sudanese security forces guarded key government institutions in the capital Juba Wednesday as radio broadcasts called for calm after the president suspended his cabinet and his main political rival.
Those removed by President Salva Kiir include two of the country's most influential leaders - his rival vice-president Riek Machar Machar and Pagan Amum, the secretary-general of the ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).
The sackings have sparked concern over potential instability in the fledgling nation, which is awash with guns, riven by ethnic rivalries and still reeling from decades of war.
"We are asking our citizens, please do your duty and go to work," said Barnaba Marial Benjamin, who until his suspension late Tuesday was the information minister and government spokesman.
All 29 ministers were suspended as well as their deputies, in addition to 17 police brigadiers.
"Give the president a chance to form his government... he has already empowered the technocrats to see the day-to-day running of the administration," Benjamin said in a broadcast on the UN-supported Radio Miraya.
Troops and armed police blocked several key roads in Juba, with a heavy deployment at the government ministry complex, but the city was reported calm, army spokesman Philip Aguer said.
"This is routine work, they are being deployed to protect the ministries," Aguer told AFP.
Many of the ministers were key figures in the rebel SPLM or its armed wing that fought a brutal 1983-2005 war against the government in Khartoum, which led to a 2011 referendum in which South Sudan voted overwhelmingly to split from the north.
Machar, from the Dok Nuer people from the key oil producing Unity state, is a controversial figure for many, but commands loyalty among many branches of the Nuer, which form an integral part of the footsoldiers of the new nation's ex-rebel army.
He has made no secret of his desire to challenge Kiir for the presidency in elections due in 2015.
However, he fought on both sides of the civil war, leading a splinter SPLM faction that sided with Khartoum, battling troops commanded by Kiir, who comes from the Dinka people.
Machar's troops are accused of a brutal massacre in the ethnic Dinka town of Bor in 1991.
"This latest move is part of an ongoing struggle in the highest levels of South Sudan's political leadership," said Akshaya Kumar of the US-based Enough Project, which campaigns for peace in the Sudans.
Last month, Machar led talks with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to ease tensions after Khartoum threatened to halt oil flows worth billions of dollars to both impoverished neighbours.
Amum was the top negotiator with arch-foe Sudan at long-running African Union-mediated talks over a raft of issues left unresolved at independence, including border demarcation and oil exports, currently under threat of suspension again, this time by Khartoum.
The suspended party leader is to be also investigated for alleged "mismanagement of the party" by a parliamentary committee, the presidential orders broadcast on state radio said.
However, Khartoum said the suspensions would not impact oil and security pacts reached between them.
"These are agreements between two countries" not individuals, said Abubakr Al-Siddiq, spokesman for Sudan's foreign ministry.
Sudan has issued an August 7 deadline to shut down oil production -- accusing Juba of backing rebels in the north, claims Juba denies -- in the latest in a string of threatened cuts.
South Sudan's oil minister Stephen Dhieu Dau, speaking Tuesday ahead of his suspension, said Juba will end its production by July 31, which would be the second major shutdown since independence two years ago.
No replacements have been announced, and it was not clear if any of those suspended would return, or if new blood would be brought in to the cabinet.
While Juba has been rife with rumours in recent weeks about a potential reshuffle by Kiir -- especially concerning tense relations with Machar -- the move still caught many by surprise.
"It is possible that this move could lead to increased political tension or disturbances in Juba and other parts of the country," Britain's Foreign Office warned.
The political reshuffle comes as civilians reel from heavy clashes in the troubled eastern state of Jonglei, where fierce fighting between rival ethnic groups have left hundreds of people wounded, and raised fears many others have been killed.