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South Sudan Warring Parties Deny Holding Political Detainees, POWs

FILE - Freed South Sudanese prisoners board a Red Cross plane, Feb. 11, 2013. The South Sudan government and rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar said Jan. 9, 2018, they are not holding political detainees or prisoners of war.

Both the South Sudan government and rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar say they are not holding political detainees or prisoners of war.

The declarations to VOA's South Sudan in Focus came two days after a January 7 deadline for both sides to hand over political detainees and POWs to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The deadline was set in the cessation of hostilities agreement signed December 22 in Addis Ababa.

South Sudan's information minister, Michael Makuei, said the government only detains criminals.

"The government of the Republic of South Sudan has no political detainees, and so far we have no knowledge of any prisoners of war. People in our custody are mere criminals who committed offenses and they are charged according to the law," Makuei told VOA.

Colonel Lam Paul, deputy military spokesman of the faction led by Machar, said the group is not holding POWs or political detainees, but some men that were in their custody have since decided to join their side.

"These soldiers, whenever they are arrested, many of them in fact pledge loyalty to us," Paul told VOA. "So we don't have political detainees and we don't have prisoners of war with us. We always hand them to ICRC and whoever decides to stay with us, we give them the freedom."

Paul asserted the same cannot be said of the government, and accused the government of holding more than 500 political detainees and POWs under harsh conditions.

Makuei insisted the government released all those detained for political reasons last year, after President Salva Kiir offered unconditional amnesty to all rebels who laid down their weapons and agreed to uphold a unilateral cease-fire.

"All these people were released, so with the current signing of the cessation of hostilities, we have nobody in custody. Those ones were released a long time ago when Kiir declared amnesty," Makuei said.

He challenged those speaking on social media "who claim we have them, let them produce the list of people whom they call political detainees."

The December 22 agreement called for a cease-fire, but both sides have reported violations.

Makuei contends violations are normal, but said that does not mean the agreement has collapsed.

"Whatever violations that are committed, there is a body established already to verify and to come up with a clear statement," Makuei said. "Unfortunately, some institutions and organizations have moved ahead of time condemning the two parties for violations, which is unfair."

Makuei said government is committed to restoring peace across South Sudan through the High Level Revitalization Forum, led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.

The opposing parties are expected to meet in Addis Ababa next month to hammer out more unresolved issues in an effort to revitalize a 2015 peace deal.