Nairobi: The leader of South Sudan`s rebels said Wednesday that the country`s civil war would continue as long as President Salva Kiir remained in power.
"We don`t feel like we have a peace partner with Salva Kiir," Riek Machar told reporters in a luxury hotel in the Kenyan capital, saying that previous ceasefires he had signed with the government during the course of the 18-month-old conflict were "born dead".
"The people of South Sudan did not deserve to go back to war, but this was caused by the actions of President Salva Kiir, who we ask to resign today," Machar said.
"Should President Kiir remain adamant and refuse to hand over power back to the people, then the citizens have every right to rise up and overthrow his regime."
The comments came as South Sudan, the world`s youngest nation, prepares to mark the fourth anniversary of its independence from Khartoum on Thursday, an event that marked an end to decades of war but only provided a brief respite from conflict.
The civil war in the new nation began when Kiir accused Machar, a former vice president, of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings that has split the poverty-stricken, landlocked country along ethnic and tribal lines.
A UN report last month described horrific violence in the latest fighting, with witnesses saying troops gang-raped girls and torched them alive in huts. Large numbers of child soldiers have also been recruited.
Fighters on both sides are accused of atrocities, and analysts believe tens of thousands of people have died since the war began.
The United Nations has also described South Sudan as being "lower in terms of human development than just about every other place on earth."
Machar rejected accusations levelled at his own troops and insisted he too was a "victim".
"I am a victim, just like all the other victims who died, except I am not dead," he said.South Sudan`s parliament voted in March to extend Kiir`s mandate by three years, formally ditching any plans for elections originally due to take place this year.
Machar said the extension was meaningless, and that as the original mandate ended Thursday, the rebels considered the government to be "unconstitutional and illegitimate."
Last week, the UN Security Council imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on six commanders -- three from the government side and three rebels.
But Machar, who last month welcomed into his ranks a rogue ex-government general, Johnson Olony -- who has been accused of forcibly recruiting hundreds of child soldiers -- defended the rebel trio.
"All of them are innocent," he said.
Speaking ahead of the independence anniversary, aid agencies repeated their calls for an end to the war.
"The people of South Sudan desperately need an immediate end to this war, so that they can get food and other life-saving assistance. We strongly appeal to all parties to the conflict to allow people to safely reach humanitarian assistance," said Oxfam`s Zlatko Gegic.
Aid groups say about 3.8 million people, or a third of the population, are going hungry.
"It is one of the world`s biggest humanitarian crises today," said Simon Mansfield of the European Commission`s aid unit ECHO. "Humanitarian access is uncertain, hardly any infrastructure exists and security is very volatile. All sides try to manipulate aid for their own purposes."