JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN —
South Sudan's rebels fled Juba under gunfire more than two years ago at the start of this country's civil war. Eight months after signing a peace deal, they are returning.
It's a key step in the implementation of the peace deal signed last August. But ongoing fighting has many wondering if the rebels' arrival will lead to peace or more violence.
More than 1,300 Sudan People's Liberation Army-In Opposition soldiers have returned to the capital so far.
On Tuesday, the rebels' second-in-command, Alfred Lado Gore, arrived, too.
Machar to arrive Monday
Rebel leader Riek Machar is scheduled to land in Juba Monday to assume the vice presidency under President Salva Kiir.
Rebel General James Koang speaks to the press at the rebels' base on the outskirts of Juba, South Sudan, April 7, 2016. The rebels are returning to secure the city ahead of the arrival of their leader, Riek Machar, on April 18.
Tens of thousands of people have died in South Sudan's civil war between forces loyal to Kiir and Machar, but Gore said there's no way to stop the coming peace.
"Peace will not be reversed. We must move forward with our country," Gore said.
But as he preached peace in Juba, fighting continued elsewhere.
The United States condemned attacks by the government in the country's Western Bahr el Ghazal state.
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said they received reports the rebels attacked soldiers and civilians there, too.
'Sliding back into conflict'
"We're at a juncture here where it looks like we're sliding back into conflict, and that both sides bear responsibility to put things back on track," Toner said.
There are worries fighting could restart in Juba.
The peace deal said South Sudan's army should pull most of its troops 25 kilometers outside the city so government and rebel soldiers are balanced inside.
But the government hasn't allowed cease-fire monitors to verify removal of their troops.
The rebels also have accused the government of secretly bringing in extra soldiers.
On Tuesday, government agents arrested and beat 16 opposition members ahead of Gore's arrival, the rebels said.
'Unfortunate ... incident'
Gore said South Sudanese should be able to freely gather and speak their minds.
"It's very unfortunate, that incident, I deplore it, I condemn it, and I hope we will be told why they have been arrested," he said.
A government representative, Akol Paul, did not confirm the arrests, but insisted the situation is improving.
"The war has been two years, there have been a lot of problems. Peace is a process. I want to assure you, today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today," Paul said.
PHOTO GALLERY: South Sudan rebels return to Juba