JUBA, South Sudan: Uganda's president visited South Sudan Monday to help advance efforts to find a political solution to a crisis that pits South Sudan's president against his former deputy, a Ugandan official said.
Up to 180,000 people have been displaced by the resulting fighting since mid-December, the United Nations said.
Uganda's influence is strong in South Sudan, where special forces from the neighboring country have been deployed at the request of South Sudan President Salva Kiir, raising questions about the impartiality of Uganda as a possible mediator in a conflict that many fear could lead to civil war in the world's newest country.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni visited South Sudan "in the spirit" of diplomatic efforts by East African leaders who want Kiir and his political rivals to start peace talks by Tuesday, according to Fred Opolot, a spokesman for Uganda's Foreign Ministry.
"The mood among regional leaders, and in Uganda, is that these guys must get to the table and talk," said Opolot, talking about Kiir and the opposition.
Museveni and Kiir are strong allies. The Ugandan leader is believed to be concerned about the security implications for Uganda of a violent takeover of South Sudan's government.
For years the brutal warlord Joseph Kony, who once operated in the expansive jungle that now falls within South Sudan's territory, was a source of tension between Uganda and Sudan. Sudan's government faced persistent allegations of supporting Kony's rebellion against Uganda's government. Kony was forced to flee, and is thought to have fled to Congo and then Central African Republic, as the south moved closer to independence from Sudan.
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 after a decades-long fight for independence, giving Uganda a new sense of border security. Uganda, one of the south's strongest supporters in its quest for independence, denies it has taken sides in South Sudan's latest conflict, saying its forces provided security as Western countries and others safely evacuated their citizens from South Sudan.
Ugandan military spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda insisted Monday that Ugandan forces are stationed only at the international airport in Juba, the South Sudan capital, and that their task is to "facilitate evacuation of civilians." But United Nations workers in Juba told The Associated Press that Ugandan troops have been guarding the only bridge that crosses the Nile River.
Although Juba is now calm, unrest persists in other parts of the country.
East African leaders meeting under a bloc called IGAD said Friday that they "welcomed the commitment" by South Sudan's government to cease hostilities against rebels who control some parts of the oil-producing country. The leaders also condemned "all unconstitutional action" to try to topple South Sudan's government and urged deposed Vice President Riek Machar to make similar commitments to stop fighting.
Machar, a fugitive whose whereabouts are unknown, has said that any cease-fire had to be negotiated by delegations from both sides and must include a way to monitor compliance.
Col. Philip Aguer, the South Sudanese military spokesman, said Monday that, although there was "no major fighting" over the weekend, tension remained because "Machar has not committed himself to a cease-fire. We've not seen one." Forces loyal to Machar still control Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity state.
Although Kiir insists the fighting was sparked by a coup mounted by soldiers loyal to Machar late Dec. 15, this account has been disputed by some officials with the ruling party who say violence broke out when presidential guards from Kiir's majority Dinka tribe tried to disarm guards from the Nuer ethnic group of Machar.
South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension and a power struggle within the ruling party that appears to have escalated after Kiir sacked Machar as his deputy earlier this year. Machar has criticized Kiir as a dictator and says he will contest the 2015 presidential election.
The U.N., South Sudan's government and other analysts say the dispute is political at its heart, but has since taken on ethnic overtones. The fighting has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced up to 180,000, according to the U.N.