, JUBA, December 28- International pressure bore down Saturday on the two sides in South Sudan’s bloody violence to open peace talks to keep the young nation from sliding into civil war.
East African and Horn of Africa peace brokers gave President Salva Kiir and de facto rebel leader Riek Machar, whom Kiir sacked as vice president in July, until December 31 to start face to face talks and stop two weeks of fighting that is thought to have left thousands dead.
“The communication is to both sides, and I think both sides have heard it loud and clear,” Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said Saturday.
His country has spearheaded attempts to end the fierce battles for control over several strategic oil-producing areas notably in the north of the country. The United Nations, Washington and Beijing have also joined calls for talks.
“IGAD (the InterGovernmental Authority on Development pushing for a settlement) has already come out with the condition that the contending parties should negotiate within four days beginning from Friday,” Mufti said.
“So we are awaiting results.”
Both sides have agreed to the idea of negotiations without setting a date.
IGAD spokesmen said President Kiir had on Friday expressed willingness for an “immediate” ceasefire though Machar would not immediately commit to a truce.
The rebel leader said he first wanted a mechanism to monitor any ceasefire as well as the release of his political allies arrested when trouble first broke out, in a satellite telephone interview with the BBC from an undisclosed location.
The conflict, fuelled by an old rivalry between Kiir and Machar, has fanned ethnic differences between Kiir’s Dinka group and Machar’s Nuer clan in the country, which won independence from Sudan, on its northern border, in 2011.
Reports of massacres, rapes and murders have emerged in recent days. The United Nations whose hard-pressed peacekeepers are to be doubled to more than 12,000 said one mass grave had been discovered and large numbers of uncollected bodies were seen outside at least one UN base.
The fighting erupted December 15 after Kiir accused his former vice president of trying to mount a coup. Machar has denied the allegation and retorted that Kiir was trying to eliminate his rivals.
Rebels quickly took control of a few key regional cities including Bentiu, in the northern oil producing state of Unity, as well as Bor, the capital of eastern Jonglei state which was recaptured by the army on Tuesday.
On Saturday, South Sudan army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP that all was calm in the main flashpoint areas of recent days, including Malakal, capital of the oil rich northeastern Upper Nile state, in Bor and in Unity state where the army said it pushed back rebel attacks on Friday.
‘If attacked you respond’
Aguer insisted his troops would implement any truce agreed by the government and rebels but vowed they would riposte if attacked.
“Definitely if you are attacked you will have to respond,” the army spokesman said.
The death toll nationwide is said to be several thousand. The United Nations has said more than 120,000 residents have been displaced since the conflict started.
Pressure is also coming from other countries to halt the fighting, including the United States which supported South Sudan’s independence and has been its main economic backer. Washington again this week threatened to cut aid if the Kiir government is toppled.
Washington has said envoys remain in constant touch with both sides.
China, which has invested heavily in the South Sudan oil sector, said Thursday it would soon send a special envoy to make contact with both sides.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this week condemned the ethic attacks as “a grave violation of human rights” and warned that those responsible would be “held accountable”.
The United Nations sent in the first peacekeeping reinforcements on Friday a 72 member UN police unit from Bangladesh and more troops and equipments were expected to arrive Saturday. In all, 6,000 extra peacekeepers will be deployed along with air equipment to help protect the tens of thousands of civilians huddling near UN bases.
The extra troops will almost double the size of the UNMISS mission in the country to a total of up to 12,500 soldiers and 1,300 police.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, became independent after a civil war that killed more than two million people between 1983 and 2005.