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South Sudan rebel leader returns to Juba after two years

Akuot Chol, AFP | South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar (C) arrives to Juba International Airport with his wife to attend a peace ceremony in Juba, South Sudan, on October 31, 2018.

For the first time since fleeing South Sudan more than two years ago, opposition leader Riek Machar returned on Wednesday to take part in a nationwide peace celebration.

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The rebel chief was welcomed at Juba's airport by President Salva Kiir, Machar's former ally turned bitter enemy.

The two rivals then joined regional leaders at the ceremony to publicly welcome the most recent agreement, signed under international pressure on September 12 in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

"I want to reiterate in front of you that the war in South Sudan has come to an end," Kiir said, according to UN radio Miraya, repeating words often heard but not followed through.

Under the new peace deal, Machar will once again serve as a vice president in President Salva Kiir's government. This will be the third time the two men will try to work together since the country erupted into civil war in 2013. The last attempt failed when fighting broke out in the capital Juba in July 2016 and Machar escaped the country on foot, under a hail of gunfire. Machar first sought refuge in the Democratic Republic of Congo before going to South Africa.

Machar is joined in Juba for the peace celebrations by South Sudan's other opposition groups as well as regional heads of state including the leaders of Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia and Egypt.

Five years of fighting in South Sudan has crippled the country, which saw mass rape, millions displaced and almost 400,000 people dead from violence and disease according to a recent report.

The conflict divided the country along ethnic lines and ravaged the economy. South Sudan suspended oil production during the civil war, which is an important revenue stream for the country.

The latest peace deal has been met with scepticism by the international community, including the United States, Norway and the UK, the troika that ushered South Sudan into independence in 2011. Since the deal was signed six weeks ago it has been criticised for slow implementation, missed deadlines and continued cease-fire violations.

While security concerns remain surrounding Machar's return, he has come back to give confidence to the population and to put more pressure on the government to implement the peace process, opposition spokesman Mabior Garang de Mabior told the Associated Press.

Sudan established a peace envoy for South Sudan after the signing of the peace agreement in September.

At least one South Sudan expert says Machar's return is a positive step toward peace.

"This indicates South Sudanese leaders' readiness to implement the agreement. That President Kiir invited Dr Riek (Machar) ahead of the implementation schedule and Dr Riek responding positively, in particular, offers reason to be hopeful. I think that this shows a genuine desire by the leaders to end the conflict," said Augustino Ting Mayai, researcher at the Sudd Institute.

Some locals in Juba, however, are more wary of his return.

"We'll feel peace when we have three meals a day, when we can afford basic needs, when we can put our children and siblings through school, when we are paid our salaries at the end of each month, when we are no longer being attacked by 'unknown gunmen'. That would be peace. Machar's coming home is just that, he's coming home. I'm not sure what else it means," Eva Lopa, South Sudan radio personality told AP.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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