January 5, 2014 11:34 am

South Sudan peace talks begin in Ethiopia

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Mahaboub Maali, left, from the South Sudan opposition, with his unidentified delegation, at a press conference at the Sheraton hotel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014. Peace talks between warring parties in South Sudan scheduled to be held in Ethiopia were delayed Saturday because the sides haven't yet agreed upon an agenda, officials said. Late Saturday, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said the two sides agreed to begin talks Sunday. Two areas the talks will focus on include ending hostilities and the release of political prisoners. (AP Photo/Elais Asmare)©AP

Mahaboub Maali, left, from the South Sudan opposition, with his unidentified delegation, at the Sheraton hotel, Addis Ababa, earlier this month

Warring parties in South Sudan have held the first face-to-face meeting since fighting started three weeks ago, raising hopes of a ceasefire in a conflict that has killed more than 1,000 people.

Following days of delays, delegations representing the South Sudanese government and the rebels met late on Saturday in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, for an opening ceremony in which some delegates hugged each other. More substantive talks were scheduled for Sunday, the Ethiopian government said.

The conflict, which has forcibly displaced at least 200,000 people, started after Salva Kiir, the country’s president and a member of the Dinka ethnic group, accused his sacked vice-president Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of plotting a coup d’état against him on December 15. While Mr Machar has denied attempting a coup, he has since become the de facto head of a loose and fractured rebellion.

The government and the rebels have accepted the talks should lead to a ceasefire, diplomats said. But neither side has agreed on a start date, how to roll it out and monitor it. Seyoum Mesfin, a former foreign minister of Ethiopia, is mediating.

African and Western diplomats are playing down the prospect of rapid progress in Addis Ababa, highlighting that neither Mr Kiir nor Mr Machar have yet joined the talks and fighting continues in South Sudan.

The rebels are insisting on the release of several senior politicians allied to Mr Machar. Washington supports the call. “We urge the government of South Sudan to uphold its commitments and release political detainees immediately,” the US state department said on Sunday.

“To be meaningful and productive, discussions of political issues requires the presence of the senior . . . members [of the ruling party] currently detained in Juba, among others,” it added.

The run-up to the talks has seen continued fighting, as both sides tried to strengthen their position ahead of any ceasefire. Bor was recaptured by rebel forces as delegations headed towards Addis.

Although the fighting has a strong ethnic component, the fractured social fabric and politics of the world’s youngest nation have seen Dinka supporting Mr Machar and some Nuer backing Mr Kiir.

The fighting has disrupted oil production and put South Sudan, which only won independence in 2011 after decades of war against Sudan . Foreign oil companies have shut down about a fifth of the country’s output, which before the crisis reached about 250,000 barrels a day.

Eastern African neighbours, including Kenya and Ethiopia, have pressed both sides to seek peace. Washington, which supported the country’s bid for independence in the 1990s and 2000s, and Beijing, which has billions of dollars invested in Sudan’s oil industry, have sent special envoys to help mediate at the talks.

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