Violence in South Sudan has diminished since a peace agreement was reached between the government and the opposition in September last year, a UN envoy said.

David Shearer, special representative of the UN secretary general and head of the UN Mission in South Sudan, told a press conference that fighting in South Sudan, particularly political violence, “has diminished greatly” except in the southern part of the country, while acknowledging there has still been deadly ethnic violence.

After five years of conflict, Shearer noted a number of positive developments in the African country since the power-sharing deal.

“Opposition members who were once at war are now in (the capital) Juba, participating in the peace process and it’s moving forward,” the envoy said, adding that more than a dozen peace meetings have occurred across the country, bringing together the government, opposition and armed forces.

Moreover, some people in the Protection of Civilians (POC) sites and across the country are hoping to go back to their homes, Shearer said, saying the trend is an indicator of the peace process momentum.

He said approximately some 130,000 people have returned to South Sudan from neighboring countries, and that about 193,000 people are sheltering at the POC sites, compared with 205,000 five months ago.

However, Shearer said there was a “lack of substance” in the ongoing peace meetings.

“It’s important that we speak in one voice, we get behind the (only) peace process, and we focus on maintaining that momentum and moving it forward,” he said. “If we can do that, then South Sudan stands a real chance of moving forward.”

South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, descended into ethnic conflict in December 2013 when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir started battling those loyal to Riek Machar, his former vice president.

 After agreeing on a previous deal, Machar returned to South Sudan from exile in July 2016, only to flee again after a major battle broke out in Juba.

Under the September revitalized deal, Machar is planning to return to the capital in May, said Shearer.