JUBA: Artillery fire pounded Juba’s government district yesterday even as warring factions met for the first time on the eve of direct talks in Ethiopia to pull South Sudan back from the brink of all-out civil war.
Full face-to-face peace talks were to begin in earnest today in the Ethiopian capital in a bid to end three weeks of fighting that are feared to have killed thousands in the world’s newest nation.
“South Sudan deserves peace and development not war,” Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said at ceremony to formally open talks, which brought the government and rebel teams together for the first time.
“You should not allow this senseless war to continue, you need to stop it, and you need to stop it today — and you can.”
As delegates smiled in the luxury hotel in Ethiopia, heavy explosions from artillery fire and the rattle of automatic weapons were heard in a Juba district where most ministries, the presidential palace and the parliament are located, an AFP reporter said.
It was not clear who was involved in the fighting, that ended a period of relative calm in the capital. The conflict erupted on December 15, pitting army units loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by his rival, former vice president Riek Machar.
Negotiation teams have spent three days in the same luxury hotel in neighbouring Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said full formal direct talks would begin at 1200 GMT today.
“The people of South Sudan have suffered in the fight for independence, and they will not suffer again in our hands,” said Nhial Deng Nhial, head of the government negotiation team. “We shall leave no stone unturned in the search for a peaceful resolution.”
But Nhial also warned it “must be abundantly clear” the government has “an obligation to restore peace and security of the country through all means available.”
Rebel delegation chief Taban Deng, a former governor of the key oil-state Unity, said they were committed to the talks mediated by the regional East African IGAD bloc of nations. “We will be continuing move to the next level,” Deng said, including negotiating ceasefire and “political issues.”
The army continued to battle rebels in a bid to wrest back the strategic town of Bor, capital of Jonglei, one of the country’s largest states. “Our forces are still moving towards Bor,” army spokesman Philip Aguer said, dismissing rebel claims they had been marching on Juba. AFP