August 21, 2017 / 10:07 AM / 3 months ago

South Sudan grounds U.N. planes in airport row

NAIROBI (Reuters) - South Sudan has grounded planes belonging to United Nations peacekeepers in a dispute over control of the airport in the capital Juba, the government said on Monday.

The move threatens to further delay the deployment of the latest 4,000 peacekeepers to be assigned to South Sudan, where civil war broke out in 2013.

“It was because the forces that were brought went to the airport to control the airport, which is not part of their mandate,” President Salva Kiir’s spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said, explaining the decision to stop U.N. flights.

“They cannot come here to control our airport. It is our airport and if they wanted to cooperate with us, they must refrain from (deploying in) places they are not authorized.”

Government forces are currently in control of the airport. U.N. officials said later in the day they had resumed the flights after the government started approving them.

“Clearances are now being issued and UNMISS’ normal operations to protect civilians and build durable peace in South Sudan have resumed,” the U.N mission (UNMISS) said.

The U.N. Security Council agreed in August last year to deploy the so-called regional protection force of 4,000 extra peacekeepers, mostly from Rwanda and Ethiopia, after renewed fighting broke out between troops loyal to Kiir and those backing former Vice President Riek Machar.

The RPF was to supplement a 12,000-strong U.N. force already on the ground, but South Sudan has been reluctant to accept it, saying it has reservations over the nationalities of the troops and the armaments they can carry.

A small batch started trickling in three months ago, but diplomats said the latest dispute could bring further delays.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission known as UNMISS has been in South Sudan since its independence from Sudan in 2011. The country spiralled into civil war, with fighting along ethnic lines, after Kiir sacked Machar in late 2013.

A peace accord was signed in August 2015 and Machar returned to the capital in April last year to share power with Kiir, before the deal fell apart less than three months later and Machar and his supporters fled the capital.

The conflict has forced about 4 million people to flee their homes. Uganda currently hosts more than a million South Sudanese refugees, while over 330,000 have fled to neighbouring Ethiopia.

Writing by Aaron Maasho; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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