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South Sudan president agrees to peace talks

Delegation from African countries convinces Salva Kiir to hold talks with sacked deputy to end fighting that has claimed hundreds of lives in one week.
Residents of Juba seek shelter from fighting at the UN compound in South Sudan on December 20. The UN says 34,000 people have sought refuge at its bases in the country. Tony Karumba / AFP
Residents of Juba seek shelter from fighting at the UN compound in South Sudan on December 20. The UN says 34,000 people have sought refuge at its bases in the country. Tony Karumba / AFP

UNITED NATIONS // South Sudan’s president and his former vice president have agreed to “unconditional dialogue” in a bid to end the deadly strife in the country, diplomats said yesterday.

Salva Kiir and Riek Machar made the commitment to African foreign ministers who visited Juba in a bid to end fighting that has killed hundreds, said UN Security Council president Gerard Araud.

“The president and the former vice president have apparently accepted to enter into unconditional dialogue,” said Mr Araud, France’s UN ambassador, after an emergency Security Council meeting on the South Sudan crisis.

Rebecca Garang, widow of key South Sudanese rebel leader John Garang, has agreed to join the talks aimed at ending almost a week of bloody unrest, Mr Araud said.

Ministers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti and Sudan travelled to Juba, the capital, for talks with Mr Kiir.

The ministers were also hoping to see detainees held since the fighting broke out on Sunday.

The UN’s humanitarian arm said yesterday that 34,000 people had sought refuge at its bases in South Sudan as fighting triggered by a suspected coup attempt left two of its peacekeepers dead.

About 20,000 people had sought shelter in Juba, the UN added, while 14,000 were seeking refuge in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, the scene of heavy violence.

Several hundred had gone to Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, home to South Sudan’s oil fields.

Mr Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, this week said an attempted coup triggered the violence and the blame was placed on Mr Machar, his fired vice president and an ethnic Nuer.

But officials have since said that a fight on Sunday night between Dinka and Nuer members of the presidential guard sparked the unrest.

Mr Machar’s sacking from the country’s No 2 political position in July had stoked ethnic tensions.

Two Indian peacekeepers were killed and a third was injured in an attack on a UN base in Akobo in Jonglei state on Thursday.

The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan said yesterday that at least 20 people from the Dinka group who had sought refuge at the base were also killed when thousands of armed youths from the Lou Nuer group overran the base and fled with arms and ammunition.

The UN yesterday sent four helicopters to evacuate its staff from the base, while the US embassy had a fifth emergency evacuation flight yesterday to move Americans out of the country.

British, German and Dutch planes were also scheduled to fly out. Hundreds of foreigners, including aid workers, have left South Sudan this week at the urging of foreign embassies concerned about the possibility of out-of-control violence.

Forty-five US troops were dispatched to Juba earlier this week to protect US citizens and property.

The violence has also triggered concerns about a disruption of oil exports, South Sudan’s main source of revenue.

“We’ve seen the conflict expand quite rapidly and quite dramatically in recent days. We’ve seen the emergence of different armed groups under different commands, and we’ve seen the former vice president say he’s not interested in talks that don’t end in Salva Kiir stepping down,” said Casie Copeland, South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Armed opposition groups appeared to be in control of some oil fields in Unity state, she said. South Sudan’s oil fields have historically been a target for rebel movements.

“The potential for oil wealth to exacerbate the current power struggle should not be underestimated,” said Emma Vickers of Global Witness, a London-based group that investigates and campaigns to prevent natural resource-related conflict. “If rebel forces were to capture the oil fields, they could effectively hold the government to ransom.”

* Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting by Associated Press

Updated: December 21, 2013 04:00 AM

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