South Sudan's government and rebel forces are to begin peace talks in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. The meeting is set to work out details of a ceasefire that will end more than two weeks of civil war in the country.
Delegations from both sides will be attending Wednesday's talks, according to a spokesman for East Africa's regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is hosting the negotiations.
Government and rebel officials confirmed their representatives were preparing to fly to Addis Ababa. Diplomats expected the negotiations on a possible ceasefire to begin later on Wednesday.
"We are expecting them to arrive this afternoon," Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom told news agency AFP.
The IGAD bloc said "negotiations will focus on a monitored ceasefire," before turning to "the underlying political problems."
Former vice-president Riek Machar told the AFP news agency on Tuesday via satellite phone from an unknown location within the country that he was not ready to agree to an immediate ceasefire and his forces were marching on the capital, Juba.
"There's no cessation of hostilities yet," Machar said. "That is what the delegation is going to Addis Ababa is going to discuss and negotiate. I will follow later, once the negotiations have resulted in a cessation of hostilities. It depends on it and when that is achieved."
South Sudan's government said on Wednesday that it had lost the key town of Bor in the latest clashes with rebels loyal to the country's former vice-president.
Government troops made a "tactical retreat" to an outpost three kilometers (two miles) away on Tuesday, Nhial Majak Nhial, mayor of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, said.
"I'm worried that the ongoing fighting in Bor might scupper the start of these talks," Ethiopia's Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom, who is the current chairperson of the East African bloc that is mediating the talks, said on Wednesday. Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda are the six member countries of IGAD.
Fighting in the world's most recently established nation began on December 15, when President Kiir accused Machar of a coup attempt. Since then at least 1,000 people have been killed, oil production has been interrupted, and Western and regional powers have raised concerns of a civil war breaking out.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontiers reported that about 70,000 civilians had fled Bor, seeking refuge in the nearby town of Awerial. Others were forced to hide in swamps. "Living conditions are verging on the catastrophic," MSF said.
Continued fighting across the country has seen more than 180,000 people displaced, according to the United Nations.
jlw/msh (AFP, Reuters)