UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Some 700 Chinese peacekeepers are expected to join a United Nations mission in South Sudan at the start of next year, the head of the U.N. operation said on Wednesday, though she appealed for Beijing to deploy the battalion "sooner rather than later."
China announced last month that it would send the troops to help protect civilians amid renewed violence. U.N. officials say this would be the first time China has contributed an infantry battalion to a U.N. peacekeeping mission. Last year China sent a smaller "protection unit" to join the U.N. mission in Mali.
Ellen Margrethe Loj, U.N. special envoy to South Sudan and head of the world body's peacekeeping mission, said there were currently 10,488 troops on the ground. The operation has a mandated strength of 12,500 peacekeepers.
"The Chinese battalion is not there yet, but we have a Chinese engineering company and we have a Chinese level 2 hospital," she told a small group of reporters at the United Nations in New York.
"The latest I heard is that it would not be until the beginning of the year but we are trying to appeal to all the troop contributing countries, including China, but also Ethiopia and Rwanda and others, to deliver the troops and the equipment they have promised sooner rather than later," she said.
Fighting erupted in December in South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011, after months of political tension between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy and political rival, Riek Machar. The conflict has reopened deep tensions among ethnic groups, pitting Kiir's Dinka against Machar's Nuer.
Loj, who took up her role six weeks ago, briefed the United Nations Security Council earlier on Wednesday and said she was "shocked by the complete disregard for human life."
The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people, caused over 1 million to flee and driven the country of 11 million closer to famine. By year-end, a third of the people could face the threat of starvation, the United Nations said.
Peace talks brokered by African regional bloc IGAD have yet to reach a deal. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power has warned Kiir and Machar that if a peace deal cannot be reached during current talks then long-threatened sanctions were likely to be imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Gunna Dickson