Uganda’s Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa says troops from the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) currently fighting rebels in neighboring South Sudan will be withdrawn beginning in April.
Uganda has come under pressure from some countries in the region as well as from Washington to withdraw its troops from South Sudan.
Fred Opolot, spokesman for Uganda’s foreign ministry, denies the proposed troop pull-out was in response to pressure on the government in Kampala.
He says the proposal for a pull-out follows consultations with the government in Juba, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the African Union (AU), which plans to send in replacement troops to help stabilize the security situation in South Sudan.
“Uganda has no desire to keep our troops on South Sudan soil unnecessarily," said Opolot. "It is within that context that Uganda has proposed - with the agreement of the South Sudan government - on the deployment of the African capacity for immediate response to the crisis that was agreed [upon] at the AU."
South Sudan’s violence has left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.
Uganda opposition groups have criticized the government for the troop deployment saying they have turned UPDF troops into mercenaries.
The charges came after the South Sudan defense minister admitted the government in Juba is paying Uganda for its troops helping to fight the rebellion.
Opolot strongly disagrees. “Uganda [UPDF] is not a mercenary force. Uganda went to South Sudan [because] the security situation in the country was deteriorating. In fact, at the time that Uganda was going in, there was an urgent need to prevent a potentially genocidal situation, which was arising out of the crisis.
“Certainly Uganda was assisting South Sudan open humanitarian corridors to allow food and other relief supplies.”
Uganda’s government initially said it deployed troops to South Sudan to secure the airport to allow for the evacuation of Ugandan citizens and other foreign nationals trapped there due to the conflict.
But, South Sudan’s former vice president, Riek Machar, accused UPDF troops of interfering in the country’s internal affairs when Ugandan troops fought alongside the national army to attack rebel positions.
Sudan demanded the withdrawallast week of UPDF forces when a Sudanese military official said the presence of Uganda’s troop’s in South Sudan poses a threat to its national security as well as a destabilizing effect on the entire region.
Again Opolot disagreed. “Sudan can say whatever it wants. IGAD has only reiterated that at one point there would have to be a progressive withdrawal of allied forces in South Sudan. It did not mean only Ugandan forces should withdraw.”