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South Sudan 'Tragedy' Cannot be Resolved on Battlefield: US Ambassador

U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan, Susan Page, speaks to John Tanza at the State Department on Thursday, March 13, 2014.

U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan, Susan Page, speaks to John Tanza at the State Department on Thursday, March 13, 2014.

U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan Susan Page has called on the warring sides in the world's newest nation to end three months of bloodshed in the country and resolve what she called "a real tragedy" at peace talks that take into account what the people want.

"This is not a conflict that should or can be won through the use of force and weapons," Page told VOA in an interview conducted Thursday at the State Department in Washington.

Unrest in South Sudan has left thousands dead, destroyed livelihoods, wiped towns off the map and eradicated "the little infrastructure that had managed to be built after 2005," when a comprehensive peace agreement was signed that ended more than 20 years of civil war in once-unified Sudan, Page said.

The current crisis, which erupted in December, "has to be resolved through peaceful negotiations, where people can understand each other and make a way forward to bring peace back to South Sudan," Page said.

"We reiterate there can not be a solution militarily to this conflict that is first and foremost political and where demands of people need to be heard," she said.

Media crackdown 'no good for image of South Sudan'

Speaking hours after a VOA journalist was detained in Juba and questioned over content critical of President Salva Kiir that aired on South Sudan in Focus last month, Page said the government of South Sudan was shooting itself in the foot by cracking down on media rights.

"This does no good for the image of South Sudan," she said.

"It's important they uphold their own constitution, which does guarantee free press and free speech... It does not serve the people of South Sudan well, the more they close political speech and political free space," Page told VOA.

"It will not serve the government or the people of South Sudan well, who really just want to hear different views and different perspectives," she said.

As the troubles go into a fourth month, the United States has put on hold a program to help reform South Sudan's security sector, the ambassador said.

Security sector reforms in South Sudan include training programs for the army, aimed at professionalizing it, and making it disciplined and accountable to democratic civil control, according to the Centre for Security Governance think-tank.

"Given that the government itself has acknowledged that some 60-70 percent of the army that was, of the SPLA, has either defected to the rebels or has run from the army, it does not make a lot of sense to continue support for an army that is not yet whole and while recruitment of a new national army goes on, even in the light of the cessation of hostilities agreement, which suggests they should not be recruiting new members to the armed forces -- neither side," Page said.

The ambassador, who has been in post in Juba for just over two years, said that although the United States saw signs of the crisis that erupted in Juba on Dec. 15 and rapidly spread to the rest of the country, it would have been up to the South Sudanese themselves to take steps to prevent it from happening -- just as it is up to them to end the fighting now.

"All we can do is offer advice, but people are not obliged to take advice, and ultimately the government has made decisions, and the people that are fighting the government have made decisions, that are out of our control," she said.

"At the end of the day, the people of South Sudan have to want the kind of government, want the kind of society that they build themselves. If they don't want it, we cannot want it more than they do," Page said.

You can hear an edited version of the interview by clicking on the link below, and watch the first part of the interview at the State Department.

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