South Sudan and Rebels Open Peace Talks
By Nicholas Kulish, NY Times, January 4, 2014
NAIROBI, Kenya—The South Sudanese government and representatives of rebel forces met for the formal opening of peace talks Saturday evening in Ethiopia, part of the diplomatic effort to halt weeks of fighting in the young nation.
The two delegations met separately with mediators at a hotel in Addis Ababa to pin down the points they would negotiate. Both sides then gathered with Ethiopia’s foreign minister for a ceremony to mark the official start of the talks, with more substantive bargaining expected Sunday.
The urgency of the talks was evident as gunfire rattled the nerves of residents in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, on Saturday evening after weeks of relative calm there. A senior Western diplomat described sustained fighting around the Juba military hospital and the national security staff compound. The shooting ended after about 20 minutes and did not appear to signal that rebel forces had reached the city.
The news that the United States Embassy would be evacuating much of its staff added to the anxiety among residents in Juba, who feared that an assault might be coming. The United States on Friday flew more of its staff members out of the country, announcing that it would no longer offer consular services to citizens, but that top diplomats would remain.
The fighting began Dec. 15 between soldiers in a barracks in Juba. President Salva Kiir accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, of leading an attempted coup. Mr. Machar denied the charge, but his followers took up arms after the government detained a group of allied politicians.
The power struggle quickly descended into ethnic clashes in which hundreds of civilians, possibly more, were killed. Mr. Kiir is a Dinka—the Dinka are the country’s largest ethnic group—while Mr. Machar is a Nuer.
According to a statement Saturday by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the East African regional bloc that is mediating the talks, the negotiations will focus on the cessation of hostilities and the release of the prisoners arrested in the wake of the alleged coup.
Humanitarian aid workers warned that the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the violence could not wait for a cease-fire for help. They said that aid was needed immediately for civilians at United Nations bases in Juba, Malakal and Bor, the scene of fierce fighting in recent days, as well as many hiding in the bush or camped out across the White Nile from Bor.
According to Toby Lanzer, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, 30,000 people are now at the group’s bases in Juba alone.