Uganda said it would start withdrawing troops from South Sudan on Monday, in compliance with a peace deal warring sides signed, a move that will please other regional and Western powers who feared the their presence could worsen fighting.
Kampala sent columns of soldiers into its neighbour in late 2013 to prop up the government of President Salva Kiir soon after clashes erupted with troops loyal to South Sudan’s sacked vice president Riek Machar. Most of the troops were posted around South Sudan’s capital Juba.
Their presence was one of the major bones of contention that held up drawn-out peace talks between the warring sides held in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for nearly two years.
“Uganda today announces the beginning of the withdrawal of UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defence Forces) from South Sudan,” James Mugume, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a news conference.
Amid mounting international pressure and the threat of sanctions, Kiir and Machar signed a peace deal in August, even though both sides have accused the other of attacks since.
Under the agreement mediated by the regional IGAD bloc, foreign forces operating in the country were meant to start pulling troops out 45 days upon the signing of the deal.
Mugume said in a statement on behalf of Foreign Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem the withdrawal was to comply with the peace deal.
Mugume said the move was also in compliance with a UN Security Council resolution that endorsed the pact, and gave the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) responsibility to monitor and enforce the deal.
The rebels protested about Uganda’s involvement and other powers said it could turn the fighting into a regional conflict.
At the time Uganda sent its troops in, it said it was in line with African Union’s tenet of protecting governments in power in accordance with a country’s constitution.
Colonel Philip Aguer, South Sudan’s government military spokesman, said arrangements for the complete withdrawal of the Ugandan forces would be made once the rebels had agreed to sign a separate agreement on security arrangements.
“If the rebels sign on the security arrangement then definitely all the processes will be smoothly carried out,” Aguer said.
The rebels said the peace deal was clear on the withdrawal.
“The issue of Ugandan forces … comes from the peace agreement that all the foreign forces should withdraw in 45 days,” James Gatdet, rebel spokesman, told Reuters from Nairobi.
More than two million people have fled their homes in the oil-producing country, which seceded from Sudan in 2011. More than 10,000 people have so far died, humanitarian agencies say.
Uganda’s Mugume said: “The deployment of UPDF soldiers helped to stop what was likely to be the worst genocide in the region.”
General Katumba Wamala, Chief of Defence Forces of the UPDF, said Uganda had between 2,000 and 3,000 troops in South Sudan, and lost nine soldiers.