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South Sudan peace talks open as battles rage

The violence has forced around 200,000 people to flee their homes, while 57,000 are seeking refuge with UN peacekeepers.

Displaced people who fled from recent fighting in Bor queue outside a clinic run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
Displaced people who fled from recent fighting in Bor queue outside a clinic run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
Image: AP Photo/Ben Curtis

SOUTH SUDAN’S WARRING parties began negotiations today to end nearly three weeks of raging conflict which has left thousands feared dead and taken the world’s youngest nation to the brink of all-out civil war.

Fighting intensified as the army moved on a key rebel-held town, even as government and rebel negotiating teams gathered at a luxury hotel in neighbouring Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.

“We have enough forces who will defeat the rebels within 24 hours,” army spokesman Philip Aguer said in South Sudan, with reports of heavy battles involving tanks and artillery on the outskirts of Bor, a dusty town that has already exchanged hands three times since fighting began.

“These forces – the rebels – are now retreating back,” Aguer said, quashing rebel claims that they had been marching on the capital Juba.

Evacuation

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Displaced people arrive with what belongings they had time to gather by river barge from Bor. Pic: AP Photo/Ben Curtis

The US embassy in South Sudan ordered a further pullout of staff and urged all citizens to leave on an evacuation flight it had organised because of the “deteriorating security situation.”

The ongoing battles prompted the top UN aid official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, to warn that soldiers and rebels must protect civilians and aid workers, or risk worsening a situation he described as “critical”.

However, UN teams accessed World Food Programme stores in war-ravaged Bor today, with aid to be distributed to civilians, Lanzer said, suggesting the centre of town was at least still calm.

But in the calm of the hotel in Addis Ababa, rivals met special envoys from regional nations, ahead of direct talks that sources suggested may not take place until Saturday at the earliest.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said the regional East African bloc IGAD was committed to support the talks “in any way possible”, but when asked when a formal meeting between the two sides would take place, said he “cannot predict anything”.

Thousands of people are feared to have been killed in the fighting, pitting army units loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by ex-vice president Riek Machar.

Fighting erupted on December 15 when Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup in the oil-rich but impoverished nation.

Machar denied this, in turn accusing the president of conducting a violent purge of opponents. He has refused to hold direct talks with Kiir.

Civilians in dire need of aid

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Dhieu Ding Chol (seven months) left, and 5-month-old boy Thuch Jong Kuch, right, are held by their mothers as they receive treatment for dehydration, vomiting and diarrhea. Pic: AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Fighting has spread across the country, with the rebels seizing several areas in the oil-rich north.

Aid workers have stepped up warnings of a worsening crisis for civilians affected by the conflict in the country of almost 11 million people.

The violence has forced around 200,000 people to flee their homes. Some 57,000 are seeking refuge with badly overstretched UN peacekeepers.

The UN peacekeeping force said this week “atrocities are continuing to occur” across the country, which won independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.

One of the hardest hit areas is Bor, the capital of Jonglei state and situated just 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Juba.

Tens of thousands have fled, many paddling in simple boats across the crocodile-infested White Nile river to escape the fighting.

The conflict has been marked by an upsurge of ethnic violence pitting members of Kiir’s Dinka tribe against Machar’s Nuer community, and the army has set up committees to probe the killing of “innocent people”.

The United Nations reported “extra-judicial killings of civilians and captured soldiers” and the “discovery of large numbers of bodies” in Juba as well as in the towns of Bor and Malakal.

Machar told AFP this week he was not yet ready to agree to an immediate ceasefire nor hold face-to-face talks with Kiir.

Kiir has described the war as “senseless”, but has ruled out power-sharing with the rebels.

- © AFP, 2014

Read: Ireland to send 40 tonnes of aid to South Sudan>

Read: A timeline of the violence in South Sudan>

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