South Sudan’s Machar Agrees to Peace Talks With President

Ex-South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar agreed to send representatives to enter peace talks with officials in President Salva Kiir’s government in a bid to prevent the country from sliding into an all-out civil war.

The officials will meet today in Addis Ababa, the capital of neighboring Ethiopia, which is one of the East African nations mediating under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, according to an e-mailed statement from Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs ministry. The meeting comes on the day of a cease-fire deadline as rebels loyal to Machar battle government troops at Bor, the capital of Jonglei state.

“The two sides are expected to reach an agreement on the cessation of hostilities and peaceful resolution of the current political crisis,” according to the statement.

East African leaders from the political grouping IGAD have warned the region would take action if today’s deadline for negotiations to start was missed. The African Union yesterday threatened sanctions against South Sudan combatants who incite violence and undermine dialogue.

The United Nations says “thousands” of people have died in clashes that initially erupted Dec. 15 in what Kiir has described as an attempted coup led by Machar and quickly spread to at least seven out of the country’s 10 states. The violence has cut crude production to 200,000 barrels a day from 245,000 barrels because of fighting in Unity state, an area that is now under “full control of the rebels,” Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said today on its Facebook account.

The country’s main crude-producing area in Upper Nile state is safe from the rebellion, Major General Gregory Vasili, an oil defense-force commander, said in an interview yesterday.

Oil Evacuation

Some oil companies including China National Petroleum Corp. and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. have temporarily evacuated employees from South Sudan. Heavy fighting was reported in Upper Nile state from Dec. 27 to Dec. 29, including around and inside the capital, Malakal, according to the UN.

Residents in the oil-rich Paloch area of Melut County in Upper Nile state say the offensive by rebels is creating fear.

“We’re all afraid,” Sheikh Aguang Aleer Aguang, a 55-year-old man who has four children with two wives, said yesterday. “All we’re looking for is something to save us.”

The Dinka, the ethnic group to which Kiir belongs, are pitted against the Nuer community, from which Machar is a member. The ethnic groups are among the country’s largest.

The U.S. welcomes the talks in Addis Ababa and wants the two sides to “take immediate steps to end the current conflict,” Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement today.

Humanitarian Crisis

“We continue to call for an immediate cessation of hostilities to stabilize the situation and permit full humanitarian access to civilian populations, which remain in dire need of assistance,” according to the White House statement.

The conflict has sparked a humanitarian crisis, leaving 180,000 people displaced, with 75,000 seeking protection at UN camps in the country. More than 70,000 people in eastern Jonglei state alone escaped the clashes in Bor, and sought shelter in Awerial, in the neighboring Lakes state, with thousands of more people arriving every day, Doctors Without Borders said in a statement yesterday. The government army recaptured Bor last week after rebels briefly seized the town.

Political Detainees

Kiir has said he’s ready for negotiations provided that he’s not bound to preconditions. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday urged Kiir to consider the “early” release of political detainees to facilitate talks. The UN Security Council last week authorized an almost doubling of armed personnel in the UN Mission in South Sudan peacekeeping operation, known as UNMISS, to almost 14,000 to help protect civilians.

The first two police units have been deployed in South Sudan and all other reinforcements should arrive within three weeks, UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

Kiir, who fired Machar as his deputy in July, says he’s ruled out a power-sharing deal because Machar shouldn’t be rewarded for the rebellion, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported today, citing an interview with the leader.

South Sudan seceded from neighboring Sudan in July 2011 and took three-quarters of the formerly united country’s oil output. The oil provides more than 95 percent of government revenue. The landlocked country exports all its crude through pipelines across Sudan.

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