South Sudan opposition leader Machar seeks safety in neighboring DRC

August 18, 2016 3:12 AM EDT

South Sudan's former First Vice President Riek Machar (L), flanked by South Sudan President Salva Kiir (C) and other government officials, addresses a news conference at the Presidential State House in Juba, South Sudan, July 8, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer/Fi

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By Denis Dumo and Michelle Nichols

JUBA/NEW YORK (Reuters) - South Sudan's opposition leader, Riek Machar, is in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Nations said on Thursday, several weeks after he withdrew from the capital, Juba, during fierce fighting with government troops.

The world body said its peacekeeping mission in the DRC became aware of Machar's presence in the country on Monday and contacted the Congolese government, which then asked the mission to pick up Machar. That operation took place on Wednesday, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York.

"Riek Machar has been handed over to the authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We're not in a position to confirm his location," Haq said.

A spokesman for the DRC government, Lambert Mende, denied it had been in touch with any party on helping the former South Sudanese vice president, but Haq said Machar was removed from an area close to the border with South Sudan.

"We can confirm that an operation was undertaken by MONUSCO (U.N. mission) on humanitarian grounds to facilitate the extraction of Riek Machar, his wife and 10 others from a location in the DRC in support of the DRC authorities," Haq said, adding MONUSCO was considered the best-suited party to move Machar safely.

A statement issued by the leadership of the SPLA In Opposition (SPLA-IO) said he had left on Wednesday to a "safe country within the region".

Machar led a two-year rebellion against forces loyal to his longtime rival, President Salva Kiir, before the two sides reached a peace deal in August 2015. Under the deal, Machar returned to Juba in April to resume his role as vice president.

But fighting flared last month, leading Machar to withdraw with his forces from Juba around mid-July.

Opposition spokesman James Gatdek Dak, writing on his Facebook page, said opposition fighters had "successfully relocated our leader to a neighboring country where he will now have unhindered access to the rest of the world and the media."

Machar had sustained a leg injury from weeks of walking in the bush but not serious enough to require medical attention, Gatdek Dak said.

Since the July fighting, Kiir has sacked Machar from his post and appointed Taban Deng Gai, a former opposition negotiator who broke ranks with Machar, as vice president.

The United Nations told Kiir any political changes must be consistent with the peace deal, which stated that the vice president must be chosen by the South Sudan Armed Opposition.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York and Aaron Ross in Kinshasa; Writing by Edmund Blair and Duncan Miriri; Editing by Toby Chopra and Peter Cooney)

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