JUBA (Reuters) - South Sudan freed two associates of rebel leader Riek Machar from prison on Friday, a Reuters witness and senior government official said, advancing a deal to end almost five years of civil war.
To reinforce the accord signed in September, President Salva Kiir on Wednesday ordered the release of retired South African colonel William Endley, an adviser to Machar, and James Gatdet, Machar’s spokesman.
The Reuters witness at the prison where they were held saw the two being asked to go and put on their civilian clothes after being brought out of their cell.
“We are here to implement the orders of the president. Their release comes as part of the peace process. They are now free,” Interior Minister Michael Chiangjiek said after signing paperwork confirming their release.
“Gatdet will be going to Khartoum and William John will be going to South Africa.”
The world’s youngest nation erupted in conflict in 2013 after Kiir sacked Machar as vice president.
Troops loyal to both men clashed in the capital that December and ethnically charged fighting soon spread, shutting down oil fields and forcing millions to flee. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in fighting or died as a result of war, damage to health facilities or lack of food.
Endley was sentenced to death in February for trying to bring down the government, while Gatdet was sentenced to death in the same month on charges of treason and incitement against the government.
Ahead of the release, the two had expressed excitement at their impending freedom.
“The day looks promising since am going to be free today after two years in the detention and I hope to see peace in South Sudan,” Gatdet told Reuters from his jail cell, seated next to Endley.
“After two years and two months. It is finally a few minutes to go and also very happy today for the signed peace for the Republic of south Sudan,” Endley said.
It was the first time Endley and Gatdet had spoken to journalists since February.
Machar returned to the capital Juba on Wednesday.
He fled to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo in 2016 after fighting broke out again in the capital, wrecking an earlier peace deal.
He later travelled to South Africa, where he was held under house arrest until earlier this year.
Under pressure from governments in East Africa and from United Nations and Western donors, Machar’s group, other rebel factions and the government last month signed a peace deal, under which he will again become vice president.
“The pardoning of ... Gatdet and .... Endley comes as a relief to all who cherish human rights and abhor the death penalty, but more needs to be done,” Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes Joan Nyanyuki, said in a statement.
“The South Sudanese authorities must commute all death sentences and get on the right side of history by abolishing this ultimate cruel form of punishment.”
Reporting by Denis Dumo; Writing by George Obulutsa, Editing by William Maclean