South Sudan Peace Talks to Start as U.S. Evacuates Staff

South Sudanese government officials and rebel leaders have gathered in the Ethiopian capital for talks aimed at ending violence as the U.S. evacuated more staff from the African nation because of worsening security.

Peace talks, delayed since first announced Dec. 31, will probably start tomorrow in Addis Ababa, Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, said by phone today. Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said earlier that all members of both delegations had arrived in the city for negotiations meant to commence today.

The discussions come as fighting continues, with rebels advancing toward the capital, Juba, while the United Nations urged both sides to avoid civilian casualties and donors to give aid agencies $166 million for humanitarian programs.

Conflict broke out in mid-December after President Salva Kiir accused his former Vice President Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup. The violence spread swiftly, pitting members of Salva’s ethnic Dinka community against Machar’s Nuer group. “Thousands” of people have died and about 200,000 have been displaced, according to UN estimates.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA, has formed a committee to investigate “those involved in killing innocent people,” according to a statement published yesterday on the South Sudan government’s Facebook account.

Peace Mediation

Efforts to mediate a truce are being led by the East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development. Kiir has declared an emergency in oil-rich Unity state and the Jonglei region, where rebels have seized the capitals, Bentiu and Bor.

Government forces clashed with rebels today in the town of Pariak, south of Bor, with the outcome still unknown, army spokesman Philip Aguer said by phone from Juba. Former South Sudanese army commander Peter Gadet is leading an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 rebel fighters, Aguer said

“The rebels have declared their intention to come to Juba,” he said. “I think that’s impossible. It’s just propaganda.”

The U.S. embassy in South Sudan recommended that all U.S. nationals leave the country and it has organized a charter flight today to send them from Juba to the nearest “safe haven” country, according to a statement on its website. The U.S. has further reduced the number of personnel based in South Sudan due to the “deteriorating security situation” and consular services will stop tomorrow, the embassy said.

Stop Fighting

The UN has urged all parties in the conflict to take measures to protect civilians from the fighting, Toby Lanzer, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, said today in a statement. “Aid agencies are scaling up their work, especially in towns most heavily struck by violence and in rural sites to which civilians have fled in order to seek safety,” he said, according to the statement.

South Sudan seceded from neighboring Sudan in July 2011 and took three-quarters of the formerly united country’s crude output. Exports of oil provide more than 95 percent of government revenue.

The country has sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data. The landlocked country has been exporting all its crude -- about 245,000 barrels a day -- through pipelines across Sudan. The fighting has cut production to about 200,000 barrels daily.

The government delegation for peace talks is led by former Foreign Minister Nhial Deng Nhial, while ex-Governor of Unity state Taban Deng Gai heads rebel negotiators, said Getachew.

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