By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
January 3, 2014 (ADDIS ABABA) – Delegations from South Sudan government and its rebels are set to begin direct talks on Saturday as East African regional leaders struggle to end nearly a month of intense fighting in the world’s youngest nation.
- Mabior Garang de Mabior, left, the son of late S. Sudanese leader John Garang, and member of the rebel negotiating team after his arrival with other delegates in Addis Ababa, on January 2, 2014. (AP /Elais Asmare)
On Friday, mediators from Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) held separate talks with representatives from the two warring parties, currently gathered for ceasefire talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs confirmed that the negotiations, mediated by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), began on Friday.
"Both delegations are meeting the mediators separately," Dina Mufti, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told Sudan Tribune.
"We hope to bring both sides into face-to-face talks soon" he added.
Mufti said that IGAD is committed to supporting the peace process to bring an end to the weeks of violence in South Sudan that has killed over 1,000 people and displaced tens of thousands.
Friday’s discussions were aimed at narrowing existing differences between the two sides to pave way for direct negotiations, which were scheduled to have begun on Wednesday.
Preconditions set by the leader of the rebels, Riek Machar, are believed to be slowing the process. The former vice-president has demanded that all political prisoners be released and that a mechanism to monitor and implement the ceasefire be put in place.
South Sudan’s security forces arrested 11 senior members of the country’s ruling party (SPLM) accused by president Salva Kiir of allegedly conspiring to overthrow him on 15 December. All the accused strongly deny this and claim that Kiir took the opportunity of infighting within the army to silence his critics.
So far South Sudan has agreed to release eight of the 11 detainees. Taban Deng Gai, whom Kiir sacked from the position of Unity state governor last year, is leading the rebel negotiating team after he managed to escape from Juba without being arrested.
Mufti said that direct talks were likely to begin either on Saturday or Sunday. .
Authorities have blocked access to all journalists from the Addis Ababa Sheraton Hotel, the venue for the talks.
Ethiopian officials, who are playing lead role in brokering a truce, are optimistic that a ceasefire agreement will be reached in the coming days, but others are skeptical as the two sides continue tying to gain military advantage on ground.