By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
January 2, 2014 (ADDIS ABABA) – Negotiators from the South Sudanese government and rebels have arrived in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, but the two sides have not begun talks to end almost three weeks of violence.
- President Uhuru Kenyatta prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn and President Yoweri Museveni at the IGAD meeting on December 27, 2013 (Photo: PSCU)
Some of the rebel team members arrived on Wednesday with the remainder arriving in Addis Ababa earlier on Thursday. The government’s delegation led by former foreign minister Nhial Deng Nhial arrived on Thursday afternoon.
The rebel negotiators held talks with Ethiopia’s former foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin who is leading the mediating team from the East African regional bloc IGAD - the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.
The peace talks are expected to start tomorrow but Ethiopian officials have refused to confirm.
Following the talks, the rebel negotiators twice attempted to hold a press conference at the Addis Ababa Sheraton Hotel, but were prevented on both occasions by the Ethiopian authorities for undisclosed reasons.
Riek Machar, who is leading the rebels and those opposed to President Salva Kiir within the ruling SPLM, has agreed in principle to a ceasefire, but has so far maintained that a monitoring mechanism must be established before talks can begin.
It is unclear whether South Sudan’s former vice-president is sticking to this stance considering that his negotiating team has already arrived in Addis Ababa.
A source close to rebel negotiating team told Sudan Tribune that the peace talks are facing a setback from the start because Kiir failed to meet Machar’s preconditions, which include the release of all political prisoners.
Following fighting in capital Juba on December 15 between members of the Presidential Guard, Kiir accused Machar and 13 others of attempting to overthrow him. Machar and Taban Deng Gai - the former governor of Unity state who is now leading rebel’s negotiating team - managed to flee the capital, but 11 senior SPLM members were arrested.
The South Sudanese government has only agreed to release eight of the 11 detainees. Rebecca Nyandeng, the widow of the late SPLM leader John Garang was not arrested although her house was surrounded by soldiers in the days following the alleged coup.
Since the fighting began in Juba, large parts of the South Sudanese army (SPLA) soldiers defected, first in Jonglei, then in Unity and Upper Nile states.
Mediators say the talks in Ethiopia’s capital will focus entirely on reaching an immediate ceasefire agreement.
The United Nations says that at least 1,000 people have been killed and over 200,000 people displaced from their home since the violence started.
International pressure has mounted against the two factions to end hostilities. Although the trigger for the fighting appears to have been political tension within the ruling party, human rights groups and witnesses say some of the fighting has been along ethnic lines.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union (EU) high representative welcomed the meeting between parties to the conflict in South Sudan and encourage them to initiate talks immediately under the auspices of IGAD.
"An immediate ceasefire with effective monitoring established as quickly as possible is essential to spare the people of South Sudan any further suffering", Ashton said in a statement extended to Sudan Tribune.
The EU official further appealed both parties in the conflict to allow humanitarian worker and observers full access to all people in the areas under their control, but expressed concerns over reports of human rights abuses in the country.
"All parties need to be aware that any perpetrators of systematic or targeted abuses of human rights will be held accountable for their actions. In particular the protection of all civilians must be respected", she stressed.
The SPLM politicians who have recently accused Kiir of being increasingly dictatorial, are from a range of South Sudan’s many ethnic groups and have accused the president of using the army infighting to silence his critics.
The UN has called upon the sides to reach into an immediate truce to stop the ethnic-based atrocities that have characterised some of the conflict. Tens of thousands of civilians have sought shelter at UN bases.
President Kiir on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in the rebel controlled towns of Bentiu and Bor, in Unity and Jonglei state respectively.