South Sudan Peace Talks Start as Army Pushes Back Rebel Assault

South Sudanese troops pushed back an attack by rebels headed toward the capital as leaders from both sides meet in Ethiopia to negotiate an end to more than two weeks of fighting that has killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.

The army drove rebels heading toward Juba north to Makuac in Jonglei state yesterday, army spokesman Philip Aguer told reporters. Government troops plan to recapture the eastern Jonglei capital of Bor “any time” and also seize control of rebel-held Bentiu, the capital of the northern oil-rich Unity state, Aguer said. Former army commander Peter Gadet is leading an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 rebel fighters, Aguer said in a separate interview.

Conflict in the world’s newest nation 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 United Nations estimates.

Efforts to mediate a truce are being led by the East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, which welcomed the start of proxy peace talks in an e-mailed statement late yesterday. It said there have been “positive engagements by the negotiating teams of both parties.”

Former Foreign Minister Nhial Deng Nhial is representing the government, while Taban Deng Gai, the ex-governor of Unity state, heads a group of rebel negotiators, Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, said by phone.

Direct Talks

Direct talks will probably begin today after a round of preliminary discussions yesterday, Getachew said.

The U.S. embassy in South Sudan recommended that all U.S. nationals leave the country, and organized a charter flight yesterday to take 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 there will stop, the embassy said.

The UN has urged all parties in the conflict to take measures to protect civilians from the fighting, said Toby Lanzer, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan.

“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.

Investigating Murder

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

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 landlocked country has sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data. It 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.

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