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South Sudan Adversaries to Start Talks as Rebels Target Oil Town

South Sudanese government and rebel representatives prepared to begin direct negotiations on a cease-fire agreement as opposition forces advanced on the capital of the country’s second-biggest oil producing state.

The two sides will start talks on an accord presented to them by East African mediators last week, Hussein Mar Nyuot, a spokesman for the rebels, said by phone from today from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital where the talks are being held. The rebels are prepared to sign an accord without their demand for the release of 11 politicians being met, he said.

Rebel forces are “closing in” on Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state, and expect to capture the town within 24 hours, Brigadier-General Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for the rebels, said in an e-mailed statement today. He also said government forces were defeated in Juba county yesterday.

Conflict erupted in South Sudan on Dec. 15 after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup, a charge Machar denies. The dispute escalated into clashes between members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer group. The death toll from the fighting is approaching 10,000, according to the International Crisis Group, while the United Nations says about 270,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

The rebels last week dropped their demand that 11 politicians detained when the violence began be freed as a prerequisite for talks to start.

‘Better Atmosphere’

“We’ve not dropped the issue of detainees; we’ve dropped it as a precondition to create a better atmosphere for the government to also reciprocate and give concessions as well,” rebel spokesman Mabior Garang said in an interview yesterday in Addis Ababa.

South Sudanese Information Minister Michael Makuei said yesterday oil fields in Unity region, where government forces last week recaptured the capital, Bentiu, had been “badly destroyed” by rebel forces. Nyuot denied the claim.

“This is a false accusation,” he said. “We need these resources for the development of our country.”

South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data. It has been exporting all of its crude -- about 245,000 barrels a day -- through pipelines across Sudan. The fighting has cut output to about 200,000 barrels daily, according to the government. Oil exports provide more than 95 percent of state revenue.

Companies including China National Petroleum Corp. and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) have evacuated employees from the country.

To contact the reporter on this story: William Davison in Addis Ababa at wdavison3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Richardson at pmrichardson@bloomberg.net

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