South Sudan rebel leader has fled country, spokesman says

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KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — South Sudan's rebel leader and former vice president has fled the country and was expected to emerge after weeks in hiding to speak to the press, a spokesman said Thursday, as the United Nations announced it had assisted him on part of his journey.

The U.N. involvement was likely to further anger a South Sudanese government that has accused the world body of interfering in its affairs after renewed fighting last month veered the country back toward civil war.

Riek Machar crossed the border into neighboring Congo and was airlifted to the capital, Kinshasa, spokesman Mabior Garang said, adding that he was planning to travel to Ethiopia soon. In a Facebook post, the spokesman said Machar left South Sudan after a "botched attempt to assassinate" him.

The U.N. indicated that Machar had been in danger.

It learned Wednesday that Machar was in Congo, near the South Sudan border, and arranged on humanitarian grounds for the U.N. peacekeeping force there to airlift him, his wife and 10 others, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said. He wouldn't say where they were Thursday, only that they had been handed over to Congolese authorities.

"We have been providing him with whatever medical assistance he needs," Haq said, without giving details. "He needed to be moved safely from one spot to another," he added.

A South Sudan presidential spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, said President Salva Kiir had no reaction to the U.N. helping Machar.

Machar had returned to South Sudan in April in a major step toward realizing a peace deal reached in August 2015 under intense international pressure. He immediately took up the vice president post under Kiir that he'd had before the civil war. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, called his return "the best hope that South Sudan has had in a very long time."

But tensions remained as the recently warring camps were pushed to work together under the peace deal.

In early July, dozens of Machar's bodyguards were shot dead after gunfire erupted outside the presidential compound where Machar was meeting with Kiir. Machar and fighters supporting him left the city, putting the country's peace deal in limbo. Hundreds of civilians died in the fighting.

In his absence, Machar last month was replaced as first vice president after a disputed change of leadership in his party. He has said he would not return to Juba until a regional force is deployed in the capital to help restore calm.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council approved a U.S.-sponsored plan to send 4,000 regional peacekeepers to Juba. South Sudan has not yet accepted the force, saying that deploying it without government approval would be a violation of the country's sovereignty.

In a new report , the International Crisis Group says South Sudan likely will not accept international mediation again and will try to "manage the ongoing conflict on its own." The report adds that "Machar is unlikely to be welcomed back in Juba."

South Sudan's civil war began in December 2013 and has killed tens of thousands of people. The peace deal has been violated repeatedly by fighting. Both sides in the fighting have been accused of human rights abuses.


Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.


This version corrects to say the press conference was expected later Thursday, not Friday.

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