Addis Ababa — South Sudan government and rebel negotiators on Wednesday confirmed that IGAD, the regional bloc mediating peace talks, had put the formation of an interim government on the table for discussion.
Representatives of the two parties in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, told Sudan Tribune that they accepted the proposal in principle, which is part of regional efforts to end the political turmoil and conflict in the East African nation.
However, both sides dismissed rumours that the proposed formation of an interim government excludes the participation the two key actors - South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, and former vice-president turned rebel leader Riek Machar.
Members of the SPLM-in-Opposition told Sudan Tribune that the IGAD proposal did not mention the exclusion of any particular personalities, saying at this point it was an item on the agenda for discussion.
The two sides said it is too early to talk about who participates or is ultimately excluded from being part of the interim government.
Rebels said the proposed issue had not yet been discussed in detail and that the role and composition of the proposed interim government would need to be determined at a later date.
"We are on the negotiation and the agenda is broad, which shall include interim arrangements," Taban Deng Gai, the head of the rebel delegation told Sudan Tribune.
"Discussing personalities' participation in the interim government shall be the last" item debated in the new round of negotiations, he added.
A senior member of the government delegation who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the press said the draft proposal had the backing of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), but insisted that Kiir remains the legitimate leader of the country.
On Monday, South Sudan's foreign affairs minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, rejected suggestions Kiir should resign given that he had been elected by an overwhelming majority.
"There is no reason to qualify such suggestions. If there are people who want to contest the same position they can do that in the 2015 [elections]. They will not be denied their right because we are a democratic country," Marial told Sudan Tribune on Monday.
However, Machar's SPLM/A-in-Opposition rebel group argue that Kiir has lost his legitimacy following the eruption of violence in the capital, Juba, in mid-December.
The violence was initially sparked by clashes between rival factions within the presidential guards, with Kiir accusing his former deputy of masterminding an alleged coup attempt.
The conflict subsequently spread across the country, pitting Machar's supporters against pro-government force loyal to Kiir.
Kiir's political opponents, seven of whom were arrested but later released and allowed to participate in the Addis Ababa talks, have denied claims they plotted to overthrow the government. Four other senior SPLM figures remain in custody.
The SPLM/A-in-Opposition says that South Sudan needs a new leader who can unite the South Sudanese people. They are also demanding the withdrawal of the Ugandan army (UPDF), which is currently providing military support to the South Sudan army (SPLA).
Juba initially denied UPDF's role in military operations, but has since admitted it is footing the bill for their presence in the country, which has also been championed by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni.
Meanwhile, Gai has denied that rebel forces loyal to Machar were the first to launch a military attack in Jonglei state's Gadiang village on Monday.
Government forces said they had killed 173 rebels, including three generals, following the attack which comes in breach of a ceasefire agreement signed by both sides last month.
Gai, who was sacked as Unity state governor by Kiir last year, dismissed the accusations, while also disputing the number of rebel casualties.
"It is not true. We didn't attack Gadiang. Government forces supported by [the] UPDF of Museveni launched [a] futile attack with an intention to advance to Akobo and Yuai. They were then beaten back to Gadiang with heavy losses in men and materiel," he said.
The SPLM/A-in-Opposition's forces "have now besieged Gadiang and will take it any time as [the] morale of Kiir['s] forces is down and many of them have already deserted Gadiang".
The first round talks between the two rival parties secured a fragile ceasefire agreement on 23 January, although the deal has failed to halt fighting on the ground.
Since the signing of the agreement, both sides have traded accusations of violating the peace pact aimed at ending the conflict which erupted has killed thousands and displaced almost a million people.
South Sudan's government spokesperson, Michael Makuei Lueth, last week reiterated the commitment of the country's leadership to the cessation of hostilities agreement.
While in an earlier interview with Sudan Tribune, SPLA spokesperson Phillip Aguer cited rebel attacks on the oil-rich Upper Nile capital, Malakal, as evidence that the ceasefire has "continuously been violated by the rebel forces of Riek Machar".
The two sides have yet to resume the second round of peace talks on political and national reconciliation, stalling efforts to find a durable solution to the nine-week-old crisis.
Many analysts have expressed fears that Machar's presidential ambitions and the desire by president Kiir to remain in power beyond 2015 will remain an ongoing stumbling block to resolving the conflict.