Peace prayers as South Sudan awaits rebel chief's return

Juba (AFP) - Heads bowed, hundreds of South Sudanese prayed for peace Sunday ahead of the expected arrival in the capital of rebel chief Riek Machar, a move hoped to help end over two years of war.

After a week of delays caused in part by disagreements over the number of troops and weapons he can bring with him, the government on Saturday issued clearance for the man due to become South Sudan's first vice president to fly to Juba on Monday.

Machar, who will arrive from neighbouring Ethiopia, can bring with him 195 men carrying AK-47 assault rifles, as well as 20 machine guns and 20 rocket-propelled grenades.

But worshippers at Emmanuel Parish, a Protestant church for Juba's Dinka community, said they hoped his arrival would herald an end to the fighting.

"We hope God will bring peace," said Joseph Deng, a 34-year old civil servant said after Sunday's service.

War was "not what people thought we would have to face when we won our independence," Deng said, as the packed congregation sang hymns, with thumping pop music pouring from giant speakers.

South Sudan's civil war began in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Machar of plotting a coup.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than two million been driven from their homes in the conflict, which has reignited ethnic divisions and been characterised by gross human rights violations.

Machar, who fled Juba when the war broke out, is due to forge a transitional unity government with arch-rival, Kiir, returning to the post of vice-president he was sacked from months before the violence began.

- 'We are all South Sudanese' -

The two leaders come from the South's two main ethnic groups -- Kiir from the Dinka people and Machar from the Nuer -- tribes that are themselves split into multiple and sometimes rival clans.

"We are all South Sudanese," said Mary Padar, after prayers in the church, a British colonial-era cinema reduced to ruins during the two-decade long war that paved the way for South Sudan's independence from Sudan in 2011, and since converted into a church.

"We have to live together because this is the only country we have," she added.

Machar was expected to return on April 18, a date already months behind the schedule agreed under an August 2015 peace deal. UN chief Ban Ki-moon has urged Machar to return to Juba "without delay".

But his wrangling with Juba over weapons saw him miss a Saturday deadline to return, issued by the United States, Britain and Norway, key international backers of peace efforts. The trio warned of the risk of "further conflict and suffering" if he did not come back to be sworn in as vice president.

On paper at least, there is now nothing blocking his return on Monday.

South Sudan's National Security issued a letter granting him flight clearance on Saturday - saying planes could not land over the weekend "due to maintenance" at the airport.

Rebel spokesman Mabior Garang, who is in Juba already, said Machar's return was an "inevitability" and that he would land on Monday as planned, "barring any additional unforeseen hurdles... by the antagonists of peace."

A 1,370-strong armed rebel force has already arrived in Juba as part of the peace deal, and government forces say they have implemented their promise to pull all but 3,420 of their troops from the city.

All other soldiers have to remain at least 25 kilometres (15 miles) outside the capital.