, ADDIS ABABA, Jan 1 – South Sudan’s warring parties were set to begin peace talks in Addis Ababa aimed at bringing an end to a nearly three-week-old civil war that has already left thousands dead.
Government and rebel negotiating teams both arrived in the Ethiopian capital by Wednesday evening, a source close to the talks said and diplomats said they expected formal discussions on a possible ceasefire to begin on Thursday, although informal contacts may take place later Wednesday.
Ethiopian government spokesman Getachew Reda said the talks would focus on “monitoring mechanisms for the ceasefire”.
“It’s positive that they are sending delegations,” UN special envoy Hilde Johnson said in Juba, underscoring the dire need for “reconciliation and healing” at the talks, which are being brokered by Ethiopia on behalf of IGAD, an East African regional grouping.
“Negotiations also need to be accompanied by something else, a deeper process that focuses on national reconciliation between the communities. 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 added.
Fighting erupted in South Sudan December 15, when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of attempting a coup. Machar has denied this, in turn accusing the president of conducting a violent purge of his opponents.
The fighting has spread across the country, with the rebels seizing several areas in the oil-rich north. On Tuesday the rebels recaptured Bor, the capital of Jonglei state and situated just 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of the capital Juba, and fighting was reportedly continuing in the area on Wednesday.
Thousands of people are feared dead, UN officials say, while close to 200,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes – many seeking refuge with badly overstretched UN peacekeepers.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said residents continue to pour by the thousand out of Jonglei and across the White Nile into Awerial county in neighbouring Lakes state.
“The road to the river is lined with thousands of people, with others waiting for boats to carry them across,” said Francois Moreillon, ICRC deputy head of delegation.
The UN last week estimated that some 70,000 people had already fled into Awerial.
The conflict has also been marked by an upsurge of ethnic violence pitting members of Kiir’s Dinka tribe against Machar’s Nuer community, and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said that “atrocities are continuing to occur” across the country.
“UNMISS is gravely concerned about mounting evidence of gross violations of international human rights law that have occurred in South Sudan during the past 15 days,” it said in a statement, reporting “extra-judicial killings of civilians and captured soldiers” and the “discovery of large numbers of bodies” in Juba, Bor and Malakal, the main town in oil-producing Upper Nile state.
The UN mission also said it was “actively collecting information” on the atrocities to be used for future official investigations.