JUBA: International pressure bore down Saturday (Sunday in Manila) on the two sides in South Sudan’s bloody violence to open peace talks to keep the young nation from sliding into civil war.
East African and Horn of Africa peace brokers gave until December 31 for President Salva Kiir and de facto rebel leader Riek Machar, whom Kiir sacked as vice president in July, to start face-to-face talks and stop two weeks of fighting that is thought to have left thousands dead.
“We, government, are ready to meet even before that,” South Sudan’s Vice President James Wani Igga told reporters. “It’s now up to Machar to accept the ceasefire.”
The government reiterated accusations that Machar was mobilizing thousands of youths to attack its interests.
“Dr Riek mobilises his . . . youths, up to 25,000 . . . and wants to use them to attack the government” in the eastern state of Jonglei, where rebels said to support Machar briefly captured the regional capital, Bor, earlier this month, government spokesman Michael Makuei said.
“They are able to attack any time,” he added. “We are in a state of alert to protect the civilian populations.”
But Moses Ruai Lat, spokesman for the rebels, rejected this, saying the former vice president was “not mobilizing his tribe,” the Nuer, South Sudan’s second-biggest ethnic group.
Those young people were regular soldiers turning their back on the government and had not been drafted by Machar, he added.
The regional grouping the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development is spearheading efforts to end the fierce battles for control over several strategic oil-producing areas notably in the north of South Sudan.
The United Nations, Washington and Beijing are also pressing for talks.
“IGAD has already come out with the condition that the contending parties should negotiate within four days beginning from Friday,” Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said Saturday.
“So we are awaiting results.”
Spokesmen for IGAD said President Kiir had on Friday expressed willingness for an “immediate” ceasefire though Machar would not immediately commit to a truce.
The rebel leader said he first wanted a mechanism to monitor any ceasefire as well as the release of all his political allies arrested when trouble first broke out.