South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has agreed to enter discussions with rebel leader Riek Machar to end a four-month conflict, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.
The top U.S. diplomat held a 90-minute meeting today with Kiir at the president’s office in Juba that was “very frank and thorough,” Kerry told reporters in the capital.
“Throughout the meeting I made it clear to him that he needs to do everything in his power to end the violence and also begin a process of national dialogue, a process by which there’s a beginning of real discussions about a transition government that can bring peace to the country,” Kerry said.
“He committed very clearly his intention to do exactly that,” Kerry said of Kiir, “to take forceful steps in order to move to end the violence and implement the cessation of hostilities agreement and to begin to engage on a discussion with respect to a transition government.”
South Sudan has been wracked by violence since December when Kiir, a member of the Dinka community, accused Machar, the ethnic Nuer former vice president, and other leaders of plotting a coup that failed. They deny the accusation. The United Nations estimates that thousands of people have been killed in the fighting and about a million others have fled their homes.
Both parties have flouted a cease-fire signed in January as peace negotiations in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa led by regional mediators have faced repeated delays. Kiir said he’s willing to travel to Ethiopia as early as next week for talks with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and possibly Machar, said Kerry.
The idea of forming a transitional government is “not acceptable whether it’s with Salva Kiir or without,” Kiir’s spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, said in an interview today in Juba. “We don’t see any reason we have to go for a transitional government when in fact we are an elected government.”
Kiir was elected president in 2010, a year before South Sudan gained independence from Sudan.
“This meeting with Machar and President Kiir is critical to the ability to be able to really engage in a serious way as to how the cessation of hostilities agreement will now once-and-for-all really be implemented,” Kerry said.
Kerry spoke with Machar by phone after returning to Addis Ababa from Juba, according to a State Department official who wasn’t authorized to be identified publicly.
Kerry urged Machar to meet as early as next week with regional negotiators to discuss ending the violence and beginning a meaningful political dialogue with Kiir, the official said. Kerry made clear that he had made the same request of Kiir, and that the South Sudanese president had indicated his willingness to attend. The official said Kerry would follow up with both leaders in coming days.
Kerry met with civil society leaders in Juba, as well as internally displaced South Sudanese at the UN mission before consulting with UN Special Representative Hilde Johnson.
Kerry said the foreign ministers of Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, who he met to talk about South Sudan yesterday, “are absolutely committed to move troops from those countries almost immediately.”
The East African ministers had indicated support for an initial deployment “in the neighborhood of 2,500 troops through 5,500,” Kerry said. “Depending on the situation, more might have to be contemplated,” he said.
These troops could be sent to South Sudan “hopefully within the next weeks,” Kerry said. “I believe that can be done quickly, I hope it can be done quickly.”
Additional African troops would be sent under the command and control of the UN, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. A UN Security Council resolution is needed to change the mandate, the official said.
These troops would take on a role that would entail more than peacekeeping, moving into peacemaking such as the protection of cease-fire monitors and the implementation of the truce, the U.S. official said.
The current UN mission in South Sudan has a mandate to protect civilians in the country with as many as 12,500 military personnel, according to its website.
The UN’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, and Adama Dieng, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser on prevention of genocide, were to brief the Security Council today about their visit this week to South Sudan.
The council was expected to discuss human rights in the country, ways to boost the UN peacekeeping mission and possibly creation of a sanctions regime targeting individuals, said a council diplomat who asked not to be named citing policy. The sanctions move hinges on how much progress Kerry made in his talks in Juba, the diplomat said.
Kerry warned of famine and the ingredients for violence to escalate. He noted that both sides are reportedly recruiting child soldiers and he cited “appalling accounts of sexual violence,” and reports of Radio Bentiu broadcasting hate speech and encouraging ethnic killings. The reports are “of deep concern to all of us,” Kerry said.