China will send about 700 soldiers to assist a United Nations peacekeeping force in South Sudan later this year to protect the country’s oil field workers and other civilians, a U.N. official said Wednesday, according to Reuters. China is the biggest foreign investor in South Sudan's oil industry.
Joe Contreras, acting spokesman for the U.N. mission in South Sudan, said that neither the date for the deployment nor the area has been finalized so far, Reuters reported. The civil war in South Sudan, which erupted in December between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, has so far killed more than 10,000 people and forced 1.5 million people to flee their homes, and has threatened the country's oil industry.
"Nowhere in the current mandate and mission does it say that peacekeepers will be asked to defend oil industry installations. When circumstances arise ... our peacekeepers will be called upon to protect civilian oil industry workers but not the refinery or pipeline or storage tanks," Contreras reportedly said, also denying that peacekeepers would protect other industrial infrastructure.
Contreras denied a report claiming China had already started sending troops to the African country. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal, citing a spokesman for the country's president, had reported that the airlift of a Chinese infantry battalion to the states of Unity and Upper Nile was expected to take several days.
Contreras also reportedly said that about 350 Chinese military forces, mostly comprising of engineers, are already serving under the U.N. mission in South Sudan. Tensions in the world’s youngest nation, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, reportedly escalated after Kiir accused Machar of attempting to launch a coup.
The deployment of troops by China will be the first time that the East Asian country has contributed a battalion to a U.N. peacekeeping mission, U.N. officials reportedly said. However, China had reportedly sent a smaller "protection unit" of about 300 troops to join a U.N. mission in Mali in March 2013.
The rebels in the region have reportedly warned Beijing against taking sides in their fight with Kiir’s government.
"The Chinese should work under the mandate and command" of the U.N., rebel spokesman James Gatdet Dak said, according to the Journal. "As long as they stick to that, we shall not have a problem with them."