South Sudan's President Salva Kiir on Friday rejected any possible reduction in the current number of 32 states after consulting with local leaders in Juba.
Kiir said that his government is sticking to its earlier position of maintaining the 32 states or more states after failing to recently agree with Riek Machar, leader of the main-opposition group the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO) over the contentious issue in Ethiopia.
"What brought us here today is the issue of states, I brought this to you so that you decide, my brother Riek Machar and other non-South Sudanese who are living with the blood of South Sudanese people have different suggestions on the table, the government is saying 32 states plus Abyei," Kiir told local leaders during consultation meeting in Juba.
The SPLM-IO favors reverting to between ten states and 23 states.
"IGAD(Intergovernmental Authority on Development) and the international community said they need a lean government. We have reached a deadlock, that's why we came back for consultation. We were given six days until tomorrow (Saturday) we will take back what you will decide," said Kiir.
He also criticized foreign influence in the ongoing stalemate over the unresolved number of states issue with the opposition, adding some of these foreign players have shown bias during the talks.
"I have fought the so-called special envoys. They will tell us here something and go there to their heads of states with different information. There are people who stay with us and who have made South Sudan their own project for food, one day if we reach an agreement they will be jobless and this is what they don't want," said Kiir.
Deng Macham, head of South Sudan's council of traditional chiefs, said that South Sudanese people are comfortable with 32 states plus Abyei administrative area or even more.
He added that any decision to change the current status quo would unravel nascent peace gains by throwing the country back to conflict.
"We as traditional chiefs want to meet with the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and Riek Machar to ask him why he wants to reduce the number of states, and where he is going to take the rest. We even need 37 states to leave alone those 32 people are talking about," said Macham.
Kiir on Wednesday said that he had made tactical withdrawal after the failed talks with Machar in Addis Ababa in order to consult with citizens.
The former warring parties are expected to return to the negotiating table in Addis Ababa on Feb.15.
Meanwhile, Machar has welcomed the East Africa bloc council of ministers recommendations of 10 or 23 states and not 32 as maintained by Kiir.
"We welcomed the recommendations of the Independent Boundaries Commission (IBC) of 10 states, the recommendations of the IGAD council of ministers of 10 or 23 plus one state (Abyei) and the outcome of the tripartite summit of the three heads of state and government of 10 states," Machar said in a statement issued in Juba.
The IGAD heads of states during the regional body's 34th Extra-ordinary summit last week, accepted Juba's request to undertake further consultation on the number of states.
The issue remains the main contentious issue alongside security arrangements, which are delaying the formation of the much-awaited transitional unity government (TGoNU) slated for Saturday.
IGAD in its official communique released after the meeting said it recognized that the issue of the number of states and their boundaries is an internal South Sudanese matter and hence, solution should come from the South Sudanese people.
South Sudan descended into conflict in December 2013, after President Salva Kiir sacked his deputy Riek Machar leading to fighting between soldiers loyal to the respective leader.
The two leaders are currently implementing the 2018 revitalized peace agreement but have twice failed to form the unity government due to disagreement on the outstanding issues.
The oil industry in South Sudan has left a landscape pocked with hundreds of open waste pits, the water and soil contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals, according to four environmental reports obtained by The Associated Press.
The reports also describe "alarming" birth defects, miscarriages and other health problems among residents of the region and soldiers who have been stationed there.
Abui Mou Kueth's infant son, Ping, was born with six fingers on both hands, one stunted leg, a deformed foot and kidney swelling.
"I was shocked the first time I saw the baby," she said, cradling him in her arms. "I am worried about his future."
The Associated Press obtained the reports and supporting documents from people with close knowledge of the oil operations, one of whom works in the industry. They've never been released publicly.
"South Sudan is running one of the dirtiest and poorest managed oil operations on the planet," said Egbert Wesselink, the former head of a European coalition of more than 50 non-profit organizations focused on the impacts of the country's oil sector.
"I don't think there's a single major industrial operation on earth that's getting away with this," he said.
There's been no clear link established between the pollution and the health problems.
But community leaders and lawmakers in the oil-rich areas in Upper Nile and Unity states accuse South Sudan's government and the two main oil consortiums, the Chinese-led Dar Petroleum Operating Co. and the Greater Pioneer Operating Co., of neglecting the issue and trying to silence those who have tried to expose the problem. An AP reporter was detained and questioned by government officials and government security forces working on behalf of the oil companies.
Neither company responded to multiple requests for comment on the reports, and did not answer detailed questions sent by email and text from AP.
The reports show that the government and the oil companies have been aware for years that contamination from drilling could be causing severe health problems, but little has been done to clean up the mess.
WASTE PITS, BIRTH DEFECTS
The oil rich area around Paloch, a city in Upper Nile state, is dotted with exposed pools of toxic water. A chemical junkyard in Gumry town, about 45 minutes from Paloch, was strewn with overflowing containers of black sludge that seeped into the ground and were surrounded by toxic waste, when an AP reporter visited in September 2018.
"We're losing children," said Nyaweir Ayik Monyuak, chairman of the Women's Association in Melut. The 43-year-old lost two children of her own between 2008 and 2011.
She and a dozen other women, crowded on a tattered L-shaped sofa in a dimly lit shed in Melut, told harrowing stories.
Six had lost babies in the last 10 years. And all of them knew someone who had struggled to conceive, had miscarriages or had given birth to a child with deformities such as stunted limbs or concave skulls.
The two earliest surveys were performed in 2013 and 2016 by South Sudan's government. They found oil pollution across the region and soil and water samples showed contamination, including mercury levels in the water were seven times what is permissible under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Local residents reported increased miscarriages, stillbirths and incidents of "malformed newborn babies" that didn't survive, and soldiers stationed there were also falling ill.
In July 2018, Greater Pioneer - which is comprised of the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., the Malaysian state-owned Petronas as well as South Sudanese and Indian drillers -- commissioned a study that found significant oil spillage and water pollution at the waste treatment facility at some oil operations that had been abandoned during the civil war.
A November 2018 report, commissioned by Dar Petroleum, found "extremely high" levels of hydrocarbons -- chemicals such as benzene that make up oil and natural gas and can cause serious health effects. It also documented 650 waste pits filled with water contaminated with arsenic and lead, and millions of liters of water contaminated with drilling chemicals sitting in ponds.
South Sudan's oil ministry instructed Dar Petroleum to move ahead with the proposed clean-up, according to a December 2018 letter seen by the AP.
But Dar Petroleum — a consortium that includes China's state-owned China National Petroleum and Sinopec, along with companies in Malaysia and Egypt and South Sudan's state-owned oil company — never acted, according to two people with close knowledge of the oil operations in the area who didn't want to be named for fear of their safety.
AP sent detailed questions to China National Petroleum Corp. and Sinopec, but neither company responded.
'PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY'
There is no definitive proof that the pollution caused the health problems. South Sudan's crippling five-year civil war killed almost 400,000 people, displaced millions and plunged pockets of the country into famine.
But Rick Steiner, an oil pollution adviser in Alaska, said there is substantial medical literature linking hydrocarbon exposure with birth defects.
"The pollution is a public health and environmental emergency," he said.
South Sudan's petroleum minister, Awow Daniel Chuang, said until there's scientific evidence tying health problems to oil pollution, no conclusions should be drawn.
In July 2019, the Greater Pioneer Operating Company flew baby Ping and his parents to Nairobi, Kenya, and then to Berlin for what they thought would be medical treatment.
Ping's father, Cornelius Mayak Geer, says the company told him that they would first do tests to determine if Ping's deformities were tied to oil pollution. If they found a link, Geer says they told him, they would pay for treatment.
But the family returned from Berlin last month after loads of tests, but no treatment for the baby.
Geer said the company told him the child's problems were genetic, and not caused by oil pollution. But they never shared any test results with him.
"The baby still cries day and night because of the pain and not feeling well," he said. "They're just buying time until the baby dies.
Environmental experts say there is little incentive for multinational companies to do anything because it is easy to get away with things in impoverished countries like South Sudan.
Oil accounts for almost all the country's exports, according to the World Bank. And South Sudan is trying to revive its economy by expanding the industry.
"No one's really watching. The government is neither willing nor able to monitor and enforce its own environmental laws," said Luke Patey, senior researcher studying China's oil investments in Africa at the Danish Institute for International Studies.
He said the result is "a vicious cycle of negligence."
Egypt's fast-growing population hit 100 million Tuesday, the official statistics agency announced, presenting a pressing problem for an already overburdened country with limited resources.
The staggering figure is an increase of 7 million since the publication of the latest census results in 2017.
Egypt's population has tripled since 1960, with the annual growth rate peaking in 1987 at nearly 2.8%. Every day nearly 5,000 people are born in Egypt, the agency estimates.
The country is trying to cope with resurgent birth rates and a "youth bulge" that has reached a peak. Roughly 62% of the population are below age 29, according to the U.N. Population Fund.
"We're looking at the largest cohort of young people in Egypt's history. This number can translate into severe challenges or opportunities depending on how the country chooses to invest," said Aleksandar Bodiroza, the Egypt representative for UNFPA.
The vast majority of the country's population is crammed in urban areas around the Nile, some 7% of Egypt's territory. The capital, Cairo, and its twin province of Giza, are home to a combined population of 19 million, according to Tuesday's figures.
Cairo has become so congested and overpopulated that President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi's government has decided to build a vast new administrative capital in the desert, which critics say further drains resources in a country at risk of drought.
The milestone quickly set off alarm over looming economic strain.
"The population problem is one of the biggest challenges facing the state," said Hala el-Said, the minister of planning and economic development.
Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, has been scrambling to stem its soaring birth rate. El-Sissi has repeatedly lectured Egyptians about the perils of overpopulation, describing it in one speech as "among the biggest threats facing Egypt," along with terrorism.
The government recently rolled out an ambitious family planning campaign called "Two is Enough," trying to challenge deep-rooted cultural traditions in rural areas, where contraception is scarce and children are viewed as a vital labor source and insurance policy for old age. The program's advertising blitz includes musical videos poking fun at outdated conceptions of child-rearing in rural areas, and billboards with catchy slogans.
Several government ministries also teamed up with the UNFPA to launch a more hands-on campaign called "Your Right to Plan," which provides access to birth control in hard-to-reach rural parts of Egypt, with funding from the European Union.
"We are optimistic, and have reason to believe these strategies are working," said Bodiroza, citing a recent stabilization of birth rates in most of Upper Egypt.
The government faces heavy pressure to provide for an exploding population under increasingly trying circumstances. One third of the country lives in poverty, according to the statistics agency. Economic discontent is mounting. To stave off financial collapse as part of a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, the government has pushed through tough reforms over the past three years.
The austerity measures have slashed fuel subsidies and dramatically hiked up prices of everything from subway fares to utility costs. The benefits have yet to trickle down to working-class Egyptians who are struggling to cover their basic needs. Youth unemployment hovers around 34%, the World Bank reported.
In a press conference to mark the occasion, el-Said warned that unchecked growth would compound the country's concerns and jeopardize its economic reforms, resulting in a grave outlook: "a decline in shares of housing, educational and health services and job creation."
Egyptian police forces killed 17 terrorists during a shootout in the country's restive North Sinai Province, Egyptian Ministry of Interior said on Tuesday.
In a statement, the ministry said the national security sector obtained information about a hideout of terrorist elements in al-Obaidat area of al-Arish city.
A shootout between police forces and the terrorists resulted in the death of all 17 terrorists, the ministry said, adding that a number of automatic guns and bombs were found at the terrorists' den.
The incident came two days after Egypt's army announced that it killed 10 terrorists as its forces thwarted a major terror attack on a military checkpoint in North Sinai.
An army spokesman said the assault caused the death and injury of seven troops, including two officers.
Egypt has been fighting against terrorism that killed hundreds of policemen, soldiers and civilians since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and the massive crackdown on his currently outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.
Most of the attacks were claimed by a Sinai-based terrorist group loyal to the Islamic State.
Sudan's transitional authorities have agreed to hand over ousted autocrat Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court to face trial on charges of war crimes and genocide, a top Sudanese official said Tuesday, in a deal with rebels to surrender all those wanted in connection with the Darfur conflict.
For a decade after his indictment, al-Bashir confounded the court based in The Hague, Netherlands. He not only was out of reach during his 30 years in power in Khartoum, but he also traveled abroad frequently to visit friendly leaders without fear of arrest. He even attended the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he kicked a soccer ball playfully during an airport welcome ceremony and watched matches from luxury seating.
The military overthrew al-Bashir in April 2019 amid massive public protests of his rule, and he has been jailed in Khartoum since then. Military leaders initially ruled out surrendering him to The Hague, saying he would be tried at home.
But the joint military-civilian Sovereign Council that has ruled Sudan since last summer has agreed with rebel groups in Darfur to hand over those wanted by the ICC to face justice in The Hague, according to Mohammed Hassan al-Taishi, a member of the council and a government negotiator.
He didn't mention al-Bashir by name, but said, "We agreed that everyone who had arrest warrants issued against them will appear before the ICC. I'm saying it very clearly."
He did not say when they would be handed over.
"We can only achieve justice if we heal the wounds with justice itself," he said. "We cannot escape from confronting that."
He spoke at a news conference in South Sudan's capital, Juba, where the government and multiple rebel groups are holding talks to end the country's various civil wars, including Darfur.
In the Darfur conflict, rebels from the territory's ethnic central and sub-Saharan African community launched an insurgency in 2003, complaining of oppression by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.
The government responded with a scorched-earth assault of aerial bombings and unleashed militias known as the Janjaweed, who are accused of mass killings and rapes. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were driven from their homes.
Al-Bashir, 76, faces three counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his alleged role in leading the deadly crackdown. The indictments were issued in 2009 and 2010, marking the first time the global court had charged a suspect with genocide.
The ICC has indicted two other senior figures in his regime: Abdel-Rahim Muhammad Hussein, interior and defense minister during much of the conflict, and Ahmed Haroun, a senior security chief at the time and later the leader of al-Bashir's ruling party. Both have been under arrest in Khartoum since al-Bashir's fall. Also indicted were Janjaweed leader Ali Kushayb and a senior Darfur rebel leader, Abdullah Banda, whose whereabouts are not known.
Al-Taishi also said that the transitional authorities and the rebels agreed on establishing a special court for Darfur crimes that would include crimes investigated by the ICC.
ICC spokesman Fadi Al Abdallah said the court had no comment until it received confirmation from Sudanese authorities. However, he said the country would not have to ratify the court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, before sending al-Bashir to The Hague.
"There is an obligation for Sudan to cooperate" with the court's arrest warrants, he said. "The ratification of the Rome Statute itself is not a requirement for the surrender of suspects."
Another member of the Sovereign Council said the government delegation to the Juba talks has a "green light" from military leaders in the council, including its head, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, to announce that Sudan will hand over al-Bashir.
"We want to reassure the armed groups that we are serious and want to achieve peace as soon as possible," he said.
The Sovereign Council member also said any extradition "might take months," because he is wanted for other crimes in Sudan related to the "revolution" and the Islamist-backed military coup in 1989. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
The decision could face a backlash from within Sudan's military, from which al-Bashir emerged, and also from Islamists in the country.
Al-Bashir's lawyer, Mohammed al-Hassan, warned that handing him over would have "dire political and security repercussions" for Sudan. He said he hoped Burhan "keeps his obligation that al-Bashir or any Sudanese won't be handed over to the International Criminal Court."
"This matter will not happen easily," he told the AP by phone.
Handing over al-Bashir is a sensitive issue in Sudan as the country tries to steer toward democratic and economic reforms. The deputy head of the Sovereign Council, Gen. Mohammed Hamadan Dagalo, commands a paramilitary unit that was involved in crushing the Darfur insurgency. The transitional government is under pressure to end its wars with rebel groups as it seeks to rehabilitate the battered economy, attract much-needed foreign aid and deliver the democracy it promises.
"The fledgling post-Bashir Sudan government is demonstrating a serious commitment to human rights principles in its first months in office." said John Prendergast, expert and co-founder of the Sentry watchdog group. "Finally seeing a small measure of justice done for the mass atrocity crimes in Darfur will hopefully breathe new life into global efforts in support of human rights and genocide prevention."
If al-Bashir is handed over, it would be only the second time a country has surrendered a foreign leader to the ICC. Ivory Coast transferred former President Laurent Gbagbo in 2011 to The Hague, where he was acquitted last year of crimes against humanity charges linked to alleged involvement in post-election violence.
Al-Bashir would be the highest profile figure yet to appear before the ICC, which was founded in 2002 but has been unable to gain acceptance among major powers, including the United States, Russia and China.
"Although the ICC has generated important legal precedents, it has had few important cases brought to verdict," said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of Cornell Law School. "Al-Bashir is the ICC's 'white whale.'"
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted that handing al-Bashir over to the ICC is "potentially a huge and long-awaited step for justice for the people of Darfur."