, ADDIS ABABA, Jan 3 – South Sudan’s warring parties gathered in Ethiopia Thursday for talks aimed at ending nearly three weeks of conflict, even as the army said its troops were trying to retake a key rebel-held town.
The fighting has already left thousands of people dead in the world’s newest nation.
But as government and rebel negotiating teams gathered at a luxury hotel in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, the army said its troops were moving again on the town of Bor, in a bid to wrest it back from rebels a second time.
“We are ready for talks… but we will not meet with the government’s delegation today,” said rebel delegate Yohanis Musa Pouk, amid confusion as to exactly when meetings would start and in what format.
It was not clear if all members of the two delegations had arrived.
“We are participating in talks because we want peace for our people even though the rebel groups have not accepted a cessation of hostilities,” the government said in a statement.
Aid workers have increased warnings of a worsening crisis for civilians affected by the conflict, which some observers have warned risks deteriorating into full-blown civil war.
Thousands of people are feared to have been killed in the fighting, pitting army units loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by ex-vice president Riek Machar.
Fighting erupted on December 15 when Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup in the oil-rich but impoverished nation.
Machar has denied this, in turn accusing the president of conducting a violent purge of his opponents and refusing to hold direct talks with Kiir.
Fighting has spread across the country, with the rebels seizing several areas in the oil-rich north.
On Tuesday rebels recaptured Bor, the capital of Jonglei state just 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of the capital Juba. The city has changed hands three times since the fighting erupted.
“We are moving on Bor… leaving the town was part of a tactical retreat, and now we are advancing again,” said army spokesman Philip Aguer.
Civilians in Bor now face “an increasingly dire situation: water, food and medicines are running out, sanitary conditions are worsening,” said the UN humanitarian chief in the country, Toby Lanzer.
‘Critical’ situation for civilians
Tens of thousands have fled, many paddling in simple boats across the crocodile-inhabited White Nile river to escape the fighting to Awerial in neighbouring Lakes.
Lanzer described the situation in Awerial as “critical”, with some 75,000 civilians from Bor and elsewhere needing food, water and shelter.
The decision by the two sides to send delegations for initial ceasefire talks has been welcomed.
UN special envoy Hilde Johnson stressed the need for “reconciliation and healing” after the violence.
“We have seen terrible acts of violence in the past two weeks… and as we know, if there is no one held accountable, there is a major risk that the violence can continue,” she said.
Over 200,000 Sudanese refugees who had fled the fighting face a grim situation, with many aid workers who had been supporting them evacuated.
Close to 200,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes, including some 57,000 seeking refuge with badly overstretched UN peacekeepers.
The conflict has also been marked by an upsurge of ethnic violence pitting members of Kiir’s Dinka tribe against Machar’s Nuer community.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said “atrocities are continuing to occur” across the country, which won independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.
The army has set up committees into the killing of “innocent people”, the government said Thursday, and another into the bitter infighting within the presidential guard units that were the reported first shots in the conflict.
UNMISS reported “extra-judicial killings of civilians and captured soldiers” and the “discovery of large numbers of bodies” in Juba and other towns.
On Tuesday, Machar told AFP that he was not yet ready to agree to an immediate ceasefire nor hold face-to-face talks with Kiir.
Kiir has described the war as “senseless”, but has ruled out power sharing with the rebels.
“If you want power, you don’t rebel so that you are awarded with the power,” Kiir said in an interview broadcast on the BBC.