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As South Sudan Deadline to Form Unity Government Looms, Soldiers and Rebels Hastily Gather

South Sudan's ex-vice President and former rebel leader Riek Machar is received as he arrives at the Juba International Airport, in Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 17, 2020.

Former South Sudanese rebels in t-shirts and sandals marched alongside government forces in a display meant to reassure international monitors that progress is being made on tasks related to forming a long-delayed unity government.

But the casual nature of the forces gathering at a camp near the capital Juba on Monday showed how the former warring sides were struggling to meet a Saturday deadline for that goal.

President Salva Kiir and his former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar have repeatedly pushed back the deadline for forming a unity government, the main plank of the 2018 peace agreement that ended a five-year-old war. In November, they bought more time and pledged to form it by Feb. 22.

Machar arrived in Juba from the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Monday and he and Kiir are due to meet on Tuesday.

But in a sign preparations were not complete, more than 500 men loyal to Machar arrived at the camp on Sunday to join what is to be a 3,000-strong protection force meant to be operational by Saturday.

The VIP force will guard Kiir, Machar and other senior officials in the future government. It is intended to prevent the scenario that triggered violence in Juba in 2013 and 2016 — fighting between the close protection forces of Kiir and Machar.

"It's still greatly uncertain if a new government will be formed by the deadline. The parties will not finish all the agreed tasks by then, so they will have to sit and agree the path forward", said Alan Boswell, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Both sides blame the other for not meeting the deal's milestones, especially the integration of their forces. Analysts say another obstacle is that Kiir does not wish to share his nation's oil revenues with his longtime foe.

"They are lagging behind," said one of the international visitors to the camp, Norway's ambassador to South Sudan Siv Kaspersen.

Foreign governments backing the deal did not expect the force to be fully trained by Saturday, she said, but added it was critical that forces receive equipment by Friday.

The hasty combining of forces comes after Kiir on Saturday acceded to a rebel demand by cutting the number of states in the country.

South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011 but plunged into civil war in 2013 when Kiir sacked his then deputy Machar.

The conflict killed an estimated 400,000 people, triggered a famine and created Africa's biggest refugee crisis since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.