ADDIS ABABA: South Sudan’s warring parties opened negotiations on Friday to end nearly three weeks of raging conflict in which thousands are feared dead and that has taken the world’s youngest nation to the brink of all-out civil war.
Government and rebel negotiating teams are at a luxury hotel in neighboring Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, with the rivals first meeting special envoys from regional nations.
But fighting is continuing in the world’s newest nation, with the army vowing to retake the town of Bor from rebel forces for a second time.
Ongoing battles prompted the top United Nations (UN) aid official in South Sudan Toby Lanzer to warn on Friday that soldiers and rebels must protect civilians and aid workers, or risk worsening a situation he described as “critical.”
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry confirmed that negotiations had started, adding that the regional East African bloc IGAD that is helping broker a deal “was committed to support in any way possible.”
Sources suggested the rivals may not meet directly until at least Saturday.
“We are participating in talks because we want peace for our people even though the rebel groups have not accepted a cessation of hostilities,” the government said in a statement on Thursday.
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 former 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 has denied this, in turn accusing the president of conducting a violent purge of his opponents and refusing to hold direct talks with Kiir.