ILYA GRINDEFF and TOM ODULA
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Seven men detained for allegedly plotting a coup in South Sudan were flown to Kenya and granted political asylum, President Uhuru Kenyatta said Wednesday of a breakthrough expected to foster negotiations to end the South Sudan conflict that has killed thousands and driven 700,000 people from their homes.
But South Sudan said the men would be held in jail in Kenya and the conflicting reports could not immediately be clarified.
Kenyatta said the release of the detainees was agreed between the government of South Sudan and the regional bloc, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, that is mediating the conflict.
He did not mention the fate of four others detained in South Sudan.
With the seven men standing behind him, Kenyatta told a news conference, “I am pleased to announce that today, the president of South Sudan … released to my custody seven of the 11 detainees previously held in his country.”
South Sudan’s presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said the detainees “will be behind bars” in Kenya. And the country’s Justice Minister Paulino Wanawilla Unago said the detainees would remain in Kenya “for their own safety” but would be returned to South Sudan to face trial for treason.
The commander of rebel forces, former Deputy President Riek Machar, has denied there was any coup attempt and has tied further negotiations to the release of the prisoners.
President Salva Kiir’s government has insisted they must face trial.
Wednesday’s release appeared a face-saving gesture to allow negotiations to continue.
Manoah Esipisu, spokesman for President Kenyatta, said the seven have been granted political asylum and will remain in Kenya until the South Sudan crisis is resolved.
President Salva Kiir of South Sudan has come under international pressure to release the detainees.
The U.S. mission in South Sudan has urged Kiir’s government to free the detained prisoners, who have ties with former deputy president turned rebel leader Riek Machar, and said it wants the “establishment of a political process that leads to a durable solution.”
But South Sudan’s justice minister, Unago, insisted Wednesday that “For us they are not detainees, they are accused now because we’ve already charged them.” He added, “What has been alleged about those people … makes it treason.”
Machar admits his goal now is to have Kiir removed from power but denies there ever was a coup attempt on Dec 15. Some officials with the ruling party say the violence spread across the capital, Juba, on Dec. 15 after presidential guards from Kiir’s Dinka group tried to disarm those from Machar’s Nuer tribe. Senior Nuer army officers, some of whom have since defected, are believed to be loyal to Machar.
Kenyatta identified the seven freed men as Deng Alor Kuol, Geir Chuang, Cirino Hiten, Kosti Manibe, John Luk, Gen. Madut Biar Yel and Chol Tong Mayay. Most of them fought in the decades-long bush war against Sudan that led to South Sudan’s independence from the north in July 2011. Some served in Kiir’s Cabinet until he fired them in July, a move that generated political tension that sparked the fighting and a rebellion in which thousands have been reported to have killed.
One of the released men, former justice minister John Luk, spoke on behalf of the seven and said they were not bitter.
“We don’t think that our president is our enemy, not at all. We are his people, we are his friends, we are his colleagues, we are his comrades. We are all feeling sad about the tragic situation that has happened in our country,” Luk said.
The warring factions signed a cease-fire deal last week though sporadic fighting has continued.
The U.N. has accused both sides of atrocities. The fighting has imperiled South Sudan’s oil industry, after technical workers fled and rebel fighters took control of the fields for some time.
Grindeff reported from Juba, South Sudan.