JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar says he could return to the turbulent country as early as next month, even if he has to enter the way he fled — on foot.
He has begun speaking out again after a long silence, during which he trekked 40 days through the bush into neighboring Congo as South Sudan's capital erupted in renewed fighting. In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press in South Africa, Machar said his country's peace deal had "collapsed" and a new political process is needed to revive it.
But he did not commit to rejoining the peace deal on the same terms. Under the agreement signed in 2015 that sought to end a bloody two-year civil war, he had been vice president in a fragile national unity government under his rival, President Salva Kiir.
Machar says he has the right to be president, and that he has enough forces to "liberate" the capital, Juba.
He called for his supporters to "wage a popular armed resistance against the authoritarian and racist regime" in his first public comments in exile last month. On Thursday he backed away from that call to arms, saying his statement was "resisting the war being forced on us."
Machar fled South Sudan in July when fighting erupted among security forces, and he last spoke with Kiir on July 15, less than a week after the gunfire began. The government quickly replaced him as vice president. Fighting has continued in several parts of South Sudan since then.
In one of his first interviews in exile, Machar on Thursday warned of coming atrocities by South Sudan's government, including possible genocide. On Wednesday, Kiir announced that tribalism had become a growing factor in the conflict and that the army supporting him was mostly his fellow Dinka.
"What is that going to do?" asked Machar, an ethnic Nuer.
He said he is afraid South Sudan will see more attacks like the one by South Sudanese soldiers in July on the Terrain compound popular with foreigners, where Americans were singled out and aid workers and others were raped, forced to watch a local journalist be shot dead and subjected to mock executions.
If South Sudan's government can do that to foreigners from powerful countries, Machar asked, what does the world think it will do to its own people?
Machar also described how he fled the country in July in a 500-mile (804-kilometer) march through the bush into Congo. There, he said, the United Nations peacekeeping force extracted him, even as South Sudanese helicopter gunships continued to target him beyond their border.
"I went through an ordeal," Machar said, describing an epic, zig-zagging hike in which he and supporters were reduced to eating wild fruit and snails. Five of his soldiers died, he said, likely from poisoning after eating raw cassava.
Now Machar is in a hit-and-miss pursuit of world leaders for talks on how to revive South Sudan's peace deal.
After a stay in Sudan, where he failed to meet President Omar Bashir, he now hopes to meet South African President Jacob Zuma.
During his time in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, Machar said Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni requested a meeting to discuss a political process. Museveni asked if Machar would participate in a dialogue. "I said I would," the rebel leader said.
South Sudan's government has given contradictory statements over whether it would allow Machar back or negotiate with him. On Thursday, government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said he would not be allowed in South Sudan "as a political leader," saying he has lost support among some in the opposition.
Analysts say some diplomats have tried to get Machar to accept exile, but he rejected the idea — "Why would I?" — saying he had a responsibility to return home.
And Machar said he would support a U.N.-imposed arms embargo on South Sudan, saying that "it is the government that is buying arms." He would not say whether his forces are getting arms from outside.
Lynch reported from Juba, South Sudan.