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South Sudan: Peace talks open as battles rage in capital

The talks are aimed at ending three weeks of fighting that have led to the deaths of thousands.

Displaced families in Awerial, South Sudan
Displaced families in Awerial, South Sudan
Image: AP Photo/Ben Curtis

ARTILLERY FIRE POUNDED Juba’s government district today, even as warring factions met for the first time on the eve of direct talks in Ethiopia to pull South Sudan back from the brink of civil war.

Full face-to-face peace talks were to begin in earnest tomorrow in the Ethiopian capital in a bid to end three weeks of fighting that are feared to have killed thousands in the world’s newest nation.

“South Sudan deserves peace and development not war,” Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said at ceremony to formally open talks, which brought the government and rebel teams together for the first time.

You should not allow this senseless war to continue, you need to stop it, and you need to stop it today – and you can.

As delegates smiled in the luxury hotel in Ethiopia, heavy explosions from artillery fire and the rattle of automatic weapons were heard in a Juba district where most ministries, the presidential palace and the parliament are located, an AFP reporter said.

It was not clear who was involved in the fighting, which ended a period of relative calm in the capital.

The conflict erupted on December 15, pitting army units loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by his rival, former vice president Riek Machar.

Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said full formal direct talks would begin at 12.00 GMT on Sunday.

Peace by ‘all means’ necessary

“The people of South Sudan have suffered in the fight for independence, and they will not suffer again in our hands,” said Nhial Deng Nhial, head of the government negotiation team.

We shall leave no stone unturned in the search for a peaceful resolution.

But Nhial also warned it “must be abundantly clear” the government has “an obligation to restore peace and security of the country through all means available.”

Fighting has spread across the world’s youngest nation, with the rebels seizing several areas in the oil-rich north.

Rebel delegation chief Taban Deng, a former governor of the key oil-state Unity, said they were committed to the talks mediated by the regional East African IGAD bloc of nations.

Deng demanded the release of several top political leaders from the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), accused of involvement in the violence, that began in an alleged coup attempt.

“The absence of democracy in the SPLM and a lack of dialogue within the SPLM has led to the current problems we are facing today,” Deng said.

“We are asking for the release of the detainees. They are detained not for any crime they have committed, but for voicing their opinions in the SPLM.”

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

The army continued today to battle rebels in a bid to wrest back the strategic town of Bor, capital of Jonglei, one of the country’s largest states.

Civilians in critical condition

There were reports of intense battles involving tanks and artillery on the outskirts of Bor.

The US embassy in South Sudan ordered a further pullout of staff on Friday because of the “deteriorating security situation”, although Washington insisted it remains committed to ending the violence.

The ongoing fighting prompted the top UN aid official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, to warn that soldiers and rebels must protect civilians and aid workers.

He announced Saturday that the UN peacekeeping force (UNMISS) would be “reinforcing its presence” in the country.

The violence has forced around 200,000 people to flee their homes.

- © AFP, 2014

Read: Swift South Sudan peace deal dashed as talks stall>

Read:A timeline of the violence in South Sudan>

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