By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
January 13, 2014 (ADDIS ABABA) - Diplomatic efforts aimed at ending nearly a month of violence in South Sudan is facing series of challenges as the two conflicting parties fail to bridge their political differences.
- Face-to-face talks between the South Sudanese government and rebels resumed in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Monday 13 January 2014 (Photo AFP/Carl De Souza)
Negotiating teams representing the South Sudanese government and rebels resumed face-to-face talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Monday.
The resumption of talks, which stalled last week amid disagreement over the terms of a ceasefire, followed a meeting between regional mediators, the US envoy and rebel leader Riek Machar in an undisclosed location inside South Sudan in a bid to convince him to sign a ceasefire agreement.
"We engaged him [Machar] for over three hours in trying to move him toward agreeing to a cessation of hostilities agreement”, said US envoy to the two Sudans, Donald Booth.
Mediators from the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), briefed the two sides on the discussions they had in South Sudan after returning to Addis Ababa’s Sheraton Hotel, where talks are being held.
Direct talks are due to continue on Tuesday, with mediators expressing hopes that ceasefire deal could be reached by the end of the week.
Mediators said while there has been some progress on peace negotiations, the possibility of achieving it on ground remains out of reach as both sides continue to maintain the preconditions set since they arrived for talks 10 days ago.
A source from the rebel negotiating team told Sudan Tribune on Monday that a ceasefire agreement would be signed “only and only if” the central government releases 11 political prisoners who are being held in connection wit an alleged a failed coup attempt in the capital, Juba, last month.
The source confirmed that Machar has rejected a request by mediators during their latest visit in South Sudan to accept the cessation of hostilities before the release of political leaders.
Government spokesperson Michael Makuei told journalists that the political detainees must answer the charges at trial and any decision to free them would be up to the court.
"Talks are leading nowhere because both sides have maintained their respective preconditions", an observer told Sudan Tribune.
With existing differences continuing to thwart efforts at securing a speedy truce, Booth and regional mediators have vowed to maintain pressure on both sides to seal peace deal.
While the issue of political prisoners remains among Machar’s primary concern, mediators said he had also expressed concerns over Uganda’s military intervention in the South Sudan conflict.
When visited last week by regional mediators political detainees said their release shouldn’t be a precondition for ceasefire talks in Addis Ababa.
Booth said Machar "still had some concerns, but I think we made some progress in allaying some of his concerns particularly in regard to the benefit that he would get out of a ceasefire agreement, which is basically that it is critical in order to get to the political talks to address the underlying causes of the conflict".
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has urged South Sudanese president Salva Kiir to free the political prisoners, something he continues to resist.
Fighting erupted in Juba on 15 December after clashes between rival factions of the presidential guards. The conflict has since spread throughout the country, with forces loyal to the president and those aligned with Machar fighting for control of key areas.
The UN estimates some 1,000 people have died and about 230,000 have been displaced in the conflict so far.