, JUBA, Jan 8 – South Sudan’s government said it was poised to recapture a key town from rebel forces, as peace talks being held in neighbouring Ethiopia appeared to be making slow progress.
The claim came amid renewed warnings of a fast deteriorating humanitarian situation, with aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warning that people displaced by the conflict were at risk of epidemics.
The United Nations said thousands of people are fleeing the conflict in South Sudan each day, with whole villages looted and burned.
“It’s a matter of hours that the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) will announce the capture of Bor,” a government official told AFP, with reports that government reinforcements were being poured into the battle near the state capital, 200 kilometres (130 miles) north of Juba.
Rebel spokesman Moses Ruai Lat, however, dismissed the claim as lies: “They are making propaganda. In Jonglei state, we have no problem in the areas we control,” he asserted.
Delegates from both sides held a second day of formal talks on Tuesday at a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa, although a brief morning session was adjourned with members of the government delegation heading back to Juba for “consultations” with President Salva Kiir.
“So far, there is progress because so far now there is no disagreement,” rebel spokesman Hussein Mar Nyot told AFP, adding the negotiations would resume on Wednesday.
Chief government delegate Nhial Deng Nhial said there was “a hiccup that threatens to scuttle the negotiations” the status of detainees loyal to Kiir’s rival Riek Machar, a former vice president and nominal rebel leader but that negotiations would continue.
The talks, brokered by the East African regional bloc IGAD, are aimed at ending more than three weeks of fighting in the world’s newest nation. The conflict has left thousands dead, according to UN officials, while more than 200,000 people have been displaced or have fled the country.
The fighting began on December 15 as a clash between army units loyal to President Kiir and those loyal to Machar, and has escalated into war between government troops and a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders.
A key sticking point has been rebel and international demands that the South Sudanese government release 11 officials close to Machar so they can participate in the talks, an issue yet to be resolved.
The push for peace was given a boost on Monday, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi whose country is the biggest buyer of South Sudan’s oil offering to mediate between the two sides.
Sudan said that it and South Sudan had agreed during a visit to Juba by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to consider setting up a joint force to protect vital oilfields, many of which are now in rebel hands. The move was seen by many observers as an effort to force the rebels to a compromise.
The United States on Tuesday offered a rare upbeat assessment of Bashir, saying the indicted leader has not played a “negative role” in efforts to end South Sudan’s violence.
Washington regularly urges countries to bar visits by Bashir, who faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court over allegations of genocide in the separate Darfur conflict.
Secretary of State John Kerry of the United States, which was instrumental in helping South Sudan win independence, has urged the rival factions not to use the Addis Ababa talks to buy time.
Washington has been rushing to end the violence in South Sudan, whose independence was seen as a key US diplomatic success in Africa.
On the ground, the humanitarian situation is dire, with tens of thousands forced from their homes. The UN says its badly overstretched peacekeeping force is sheltering 62,000 people, many of whom have fled an wave of ethnic violence pitting Kiir’s Dinka tribe against Machar’s Nuer.
Atrocities have been committed by both sides, and the UN has said it will investigate crimes against humanity thought to have been committed over the past three weeks.
MSF said those displaced were facing disaster, adding that even before fighting broke out, 80 percent of healthcare and basic services in South Sudan was provided by non-governmental organisations.
“Today, there is a high risk of epidemics, and if the fighting prevents us from gaining rapid and safe access to people in need, especially to pregnant women and children, conditions will quickly deteriorate,” said Raphael Gorgeu, MSF’s head of mission in South Sudan.