UNITED NATIONS -- After five years of civil war, the U.N. envoy for South Sudan said Tuesday that fighting in the world's newest nation "has diminished greatly" since last September's peace agreement — and so has political fighting.
David Shearer said at a news conference that he is encouraged by "a number of positive things."
Opposition members once at war are now in the capital of Juba participating in the peace process "and it's moving forward," he said. More than 15 "peace meetings" between the opposition, government and armed forces have taken place amicably across the country, and civilians in U.N. protected sites are starting to return home, he added.
On the less positive side, Shearer said the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which he heads, is concerned "that the momentum of the peace agreement and the peace talks might slow."
There were high hopes that South Sudan would have peace and stability after gaining its independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011. But it plunged into ethnic violence in December 2013 when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, started battling those loyal to Riek Machar, his former vice president who is a Nuer.
Fighting has killed almost 400,000 people, displaced millions and left more than 7 million — two-thirds of the population — in "dire need" of humanitarian aid. Many peace agreements have failed, but since the September deal was signed, the previously warring parties have been trying to rebuild trust.
"If I look back four months ago or five months ago, I would have said chances of being where we are today is unlikely — and we're here," Shearer said. "And what I'd like to be able to think is that in five months from now, we will be in a better and different place than we are now — along a positive road," he said.
Shearer said there are still many issues to be resolved, including some fighting in the southern Equatorias region and political matters. He said the U.N. has been told the South Sudanese will produce a plan later this week on how forces loyal to Kiir, Machar and others will come together and how the security sector will be reformed. Portfolios in the government are also still being worked out, particularly with the opposition alliance of non-Machar groups, he said.
Shearer said he had a long discussion with Machar in Sudan last week and "he told me that he's committed to coming back still at the end of May." Under the peace agreement, that is the beginning of the transitional period that will ultimately lead to elections, Shearer said.
He said Machar told him he will not insist that everything is in place, but "if it looked like it was good momentum going forward, he wanted to go back."
"So I took him at his word and i think that's positive," Shearer said, adding that Machar's top aide and his wife are in South Sudan now.
As for the U.N. sites set up in 2014 to protect civilians as fighting escalated, Shearer said the number of people in them has dropped to 193,000 from about 205,000 five months ago.
In Wau, where there were 39,000, the number is down to 14,000, and a U.N. survey indicates 40 percent of those remaining plan to leave, he said. In Juba, of the 32,000 civilians at the site there now, surveys indicate 40 percent will leave, and most want to return to their homes.
"We're certainly not closing" the sites and "we're certainly not pushing people out," Shearer said, but if people want to return home "it's incumbent on us to make sure that we can do everything to help them to be able to do that."