Addis Ababa — Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn and Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, on Thursday arrived in Juba, South Sudan in an attempt to mediate between the government members of the ruling party and army who have defected.
The two leaders later on Thursday concluded their first round talks with President Salva Kiir, but the consultations, which are part of regional efforts to find a way out from the crises in South Sudan, are due to continue in the coming days.
Following the first talks, Ethiopian foreign minister, Tedros Adhanom, told reporters that the leaders condemned any attempt to unconstitutionally remove a democratically elected government. Any such actions are unacceptable, he said, adding that political disputes should be resolved through dialogue.
Although President Kiir accuses those he has arrested and those who have rebelled against him as staging coup, this is denied by those who oppose him.
The Ethiopian prime minister is believed to have visited the 11 senior members of the ruling SPLM who have been detained in Juba in connection with the alleged coup attempt.
"IGAD member states and the two leaders (of Ethiopia and Kenya) will do their level best to resolve the crises amicably" he said.
South Sudan's information minister Michael Makuei Lueth said on Thursday that world leaders have urged for dialogue and immediate stoppage of violence in which thousands are feared killed.
The United States, Norway and Ethiopia are leading efforts to open peace talks between Kiir and his political rivals. Kiir said in a Christmas address that he is willing to engage in "dialogue" with all his opponents.
Leuth said the government has not yet established formal contact with Machar, who has been accused of leading what the government insists, was a failed coup plot. Machar, he said, was expected to first renounce rebellion.
"For us, we are not talking with him," Lueth said, referring to Machar, whose whereabouts remains unknown.
Government troops are trying to retake control of Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity state, from forces loyal to Machar. Fighting was reported overnight in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, according to Lueth.
Upper Nile and Unity are the country's key oil-producing states. South Sudan gets nearly 98 percent of its government budget from oil revenues.
Although the capital, Juba, is now calm, fighting appears to be spreading across the country, stretching the limits of humanitarian workers and aid agencies.
The Ethiopian Premier, who also is the Chairperson of the African Union (AU) and Chairperson of the East African regional body, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), is also expected - during his stay in Juba - to review the implementation of the peace proposal forwarded by IGAD foreign ministers.
"Given its peacekeeping and peacemaking role in the Horn of Africa region and being the current chair of the African Union, Ethiopia is believed to play a key role in bringing together the parties to the conflict in South Sudan," Ethiopia's ministry of foreign affairs in a statement today.
The UN says some 1,000 people have died in violence however as conflict continues to escalate in different regions of the country; the death toll is expected to surpass the stated figure.
Over 60,000 people have sheltered at UN bases and more than 92,000 have fled their homes, seeking refuge from the ongoing fighting between the army and forces loyal to sacked vice-president Machar, who remains on the run.
Machar has announced that he is sending his negotiating team to Addis Ababa for peace talks with representatives of Kiir.
AU, IGAD URGE CEASEFIRE:
Meanwhile, as East African leaders head to Juba to mediate peace talks, the African Union (AU) and the regional bloc, IGAD, on Thursday renewed a call for an immediate ceasefire in South Sudan as fears rise that the fighting could spark a civil war.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn of Ethiopia, and the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, have reiterated the AU's and IGAD's call for an immediate cessation of hostilities in South Sudan, said a joint statement, which further urged the two warring parties to engage in dialogue.
"The AU and IGAD are profoundly concerned by reports of the mobilization of tribal militias in South Sudan, which threaten to further escalate the conflict and transform it into an exceptionally destructive inter-ethnic violence that would put in danger the very existence of South Sudan."
The joint statement stressed a need from all South Sudanese stakeholders to fully be aware of these perils and their responsibilities to save their two-year-old state.
Dessalegn and Dlamini-Zuma urged both Kiir and Machar to act with a sense of patriotism and responsibility towards the entire community of South Sudan.
"The AU and IGAD reiterate the urgent imperative of an inclusive dialogue among all concerned stakeholders based on the rejection of the use of force, respect for human rights and dignity, the rule of law and constitutional legality, and their readiness to facilitate such a dialogue" the statement added.
After the talks with Kiir, the Ethiopian prime minister has left for Kenya for further consultation with IGAD members on ways of finding an all inclusive solution to the political crises in South Sudan.
In Nairobi, Ethiopian premier and other IGAD members are expected to consult on how a peace proposal presented by IGAD foreign ministers could be implemented by the two sides, ahead of Kiir and Machar's representatives meeting in Addis Ababa.
The United Nations is investigating reports of mass killings. South Sudan's top UN humanitarian official, Toby Lanzer, said on Monday that he believed the death toll has surpassed 1,000.
The UN Security Council voted unanimously to beef up its peacekeeping force in South Sudan on 24 December. It condemned targeted violence against civilians and ethnic communities and called for "an immediate cessation of hostilities and the immediate opening of a dialogue."
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal. Before that, the south fought decades of war with Sudan. The country, one of the world's least developed, and has suffered from cyclical tribal clashes over cattle and land disputes.
The UN says that an additional $166 million is needed between now and March next year to save lives amid continuing violence.