South Sudanese government officials and representatives of rebel groups agreed to face-to-face talks on a monitored cease-fire and the detention of leading politicians arrested after an alleged coup attempt, Ethiopian envoy Seyoum Mesfin said.
The warring parties assured mediators that they’ll strive to reach a political solution to the conflict that began in mid-December, Seyoum told reporters in Addis Ababa yesterday. The talks in the Ethiopian capital had the potential to begin last night, according to European Union regional envoy Alexander Rondos.
Conflict broke out Dec. 15 after President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, of trying to stage a coup. The violence spread swiftly, pitting members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community against Machar’s Nuer group. The United Nations has estimated that “thousands” of people have died and about 200,000 have been displaced.
Machar and his allies are demanding the release of all 11 politicians that Kiir’s government has detained and for those individuals to be given freedom of movement, said Taban Deng Gai, head of the negotiating team for the rebels.
The politicians are “languishing in jail not for any crimes they’ve committed, but for the reason of voicing their political opinion,” Gai said.
Ugandan military forces also should withdraw from the country as part of a cease-fire, he said.
Officials from neighboring Uganda have said they sent troops into South Sudan to protect its citizens since clashes began. Rebels claim the Ugandan forces are supporting Kiir’s troops.
Those detained in the wake of the alleged coup attempt include Pagan Amum, the former secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.
The government should release the detainees so they can join talks to end the political crisis, Donald Booth, the U.S. envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, told reporters yesterday.
Rondos, the EU envoy, said the detainee issue was key to ending the discord.
“You can’t really have a serious political discussion if you haven’t got all the players at the table,” he said in an interview. “And keeping a bunch of them in prison just doesn’t make sense under the present circumstances.”
While the South Sudanese government seeks peace, it also has a duty to provide security in the country, Nhial Deng Nhial, the head of Kiir’s delegation to Addis Ababa, said yesterday.
Kiir has declared an emergency in the oil-rich Unity state and Jonglei region, where rebels have seized the capitals, Bentiu and Bor. That decision should be reversed, Gai of the rebel delegation said.
The steps toward a cease-fire come as fighting continues in South Sudan, with rebels claiming to be advancing toward the capital, Juba. The UN urged both sides to avoid civilian casualties, and called on donors to help aid agencies raise $166 million for humanitarian programs.
Efforts to mediate a truce are being led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a group of eight East African nations including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Jerusalem today that the start of direct talks was a “very important step” and urged officials to approach them with “resolve.”
South Sudan seceded from neighboring Sudan in July 2011, taking three-quarters of the formerly united country’s crude output with it. Oil exports provide more than 95 percent of government revenue.
The landlocked country 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 production to about 200,000 barrels daily.