Former South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar, who has been accused by President Salva Kiir of sparking the deadly violence that has rocked the world's newest nation for more than two weeks, said Wednesday he has sent a delegation to Ethiopia for peace talks.
"The mediators when they contacted me, I have sent a delegation to Addis so that this issue can be discussed. We hope the dialogue will bring about a solution," Machar told VOA News in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location.
But Machar insisted that Kiir has to step down for peace to be restored in South Sudan, where the United Nations has said it has "mounting evidence" that serious human rights abuses, including targeted ethnic killings, massive displacements and arbitrary detensions have been committed since unrest broke out on Dec.15.
"We want peace, but peace cannot be achieved under Salva Kiir Mayardit," he said.
"He has disunited the country. There's a massacre in Juba, ethnic cleansing in Juba. I don't think Salva Kiir can unite the people any more," Machar said.
Excerpts from Riek Machar Interview with John Tanza of South Sudan in Focus
The U.N. Mission in South Sudan said that evidence it has gathered shows that South Sudanese citizens are being targeted in the fighting because they belong to Kiir's ethnic group, the Dinka, or to his former vice president Riek Machar's ethnic Nuer group.
Kiir said days ago that he would be willing to hold talks with Machar to try to end the fighting that the United Nations says has claimed at least 1,000 lives and displaced tens of thousands, but only if there are no conditions attached to the negotiations.
Machar, meanwhile, has repeatedly said that he will not enter into talks with Kiir unless he meets certain conditions, including that the president should free all 11 high-ranking members of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party who were detained when the unrest started.
Machar said Wednesday that, although he has sent a delegation to Addis Ababa for the talks, he still wanted Kiir to free the detained SPLM party members because they were key members of the team he wanted to send to the peace talks.
A VOA reporter confirmed that delegates from Machar's side have arrived in the Ethiopian capital for peace talks, but said it was unclear if anyone from the government side had arrived.
Ethiopian government officials said the talks were unlikely to begin before Thursday, reporter Marthe van der Wolf said.
Marthe Van der Wolf on status of South Sudan peace talks
The East African bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is mediating the talks, had set a deadline of Tuesday for the two sides to come to the negotiating table to end the violence in South Sudan.
A source close to the government, who asked not to be named, said the officials who have been named to represent Kiir at the talks were unable to get a flight from Juba to Addis Ababa by the IGAD deadline, but it was impossible for VOA News to independently confirm the information.
South Sudan plunged into violence in mid-December after what Kiir said was a failed bid to oust him, orchestrated by Machar.
Machar, who was vice president of South Sudan until July, when Kiir fired him in a sweeping cabinet reshuffle, has consistently denied being behind a coup.
He went to ground immediately after the unrest broke out and said Wednesday that he would only emerge from hiding "when we attain peace."
An ally of Machar said Tuesday that fighting was still raging in parts of South Sudan, even as negotiators headed to Ethiopia to talk peace.
"There is bombardment going on... Some of the areas that are controlled by Riek Machar are being bombarded and, as I speak to you, there is fighting going on in parts of Unity state," Hussein Mar Nyuot told a news conference in Nairobi.
"So far there is no ceasefire or cessation of hostilities," said Mar Nyuot, who left his position as deputy governor of Jonglei state on Tuesday to go over to Machar's side in the conflict.