2 January 2014

East Africa: Slow Start to South Sudan Peace Talks Amid Military Maneuvering

Talks to end the violence in South Sudan have been overshadowed by army claims that it is advancing on a key rebel-controlled city. The army has also accused the rebels of planning to march on the capital.

While both sides agreed in principle to a ceasefire to end three weeks of violence, neither has yet laid down their arms.

South Sudan's government forces stated they wanted to re-take the strategic city of Bor, which rebel forces captured on Tuesday, while also claiming the rebels were set to march on the capital, Juba, which lies 190 kilometers (118 miles) south of Bor by road.

"We are advancing to Bor because these people want to come to Juba," South Sudan army chief of staff James Hoth Mai (pictured) told reporters. "We don't yet have a ceasefire and we don't want them to come and get us."

Military spokesman Philip Aguer said the rebels were forcibly recruiting civilians to march on the capital, according to the AP news agency.

A rebel spokesman in Unity state, though, dismissed the army's claims, telling the Reuters news agency that the government side had resorted to a "war of allegations" ahead of the peace talks.

Dire situation for civilians

More than 1,000 people have been killed and 180,000 displaced in South Sudan since fighting broke out on December 15 between supporters of President Salva Kiir and his long-term political rival Riek Machar, whom Kiir sacked as vice president last July. Kirr accused Machar of starting the fighting in a bid to seize power, but Machar denies this. The conflict escalated along ethnic lines between Kiir's Dinka group and Machar's Nuer.

Those civilians remaining in Bor were left facing a dire situation.

"Water, food and medicines are running out, sanitary conditions are worsening," the country's United Nations humanitarian chief Toby Lanzer said, while tens of thousands have fled from Bor across the crocodile-inhabited waters of the White Nile river.

Slow start to peace talks

The talks in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, brought about by the east African bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and supported by the United Nations and African Union, had a slow start, with mediators meeting representatives from both sides separately ahead of direct talks between the opposing groups.

While all of the rebel delegation has arrived for the talks, half of the government delegation was still due to arrive late on Thursday.

Mediators said the talks were meant to center around how to establish and monitor a ceasefire, but both sides needed to do more to demonstrate their commitment.

"[It] looks like they're still moving for a military advantage rather than preparing a ceasefire," Britain's acting envoy to South Sudan, Andrew Mace, said.

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war in which it is estimated that more than 2 million people died.

(AP, Reuters, AFP)


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