South Sudan's warring parties opened negotiations today to end nearly three weeks of raging conflict which has left thousands feared dead and taken the world's youngest nation to the brink of all-out civil war.
Government and rebel negotiating teams are at a luxury hotel in neighbouring Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, with the rivals first meeting special envoys from regional nations. But fighting is continuing in South Sudan, with the army vowing to retake the town of Bor from rebel forces for a second time.
The ongoing battles prompted the top UN aid official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, to warn that soldiers and rebels must protect civilians and aid workers, or risk worsening a situation he described as "critical". The US embassy in South Sudan ordered a further pullout of staff and urged all citizens to leave on an evacuation flight it has organised due to the "deteriorating security situation." Ethiopia's foreign ministry confirmed that negotiations had started, adding that the regional East African bloc IGAD that is helping to broker a deal "was committed to support in any way possible".
Sources suggested the rivals may not meet directly until at least Saturday. "We are participating in talks because we want peace for our people even though the rebel groups have not accepted a cessation of hostilities," the South Sudan government said in a statement yesterday. Thousands of people are feared to have been killed in the fighting, pitting army units loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by ex-vice president Riek Machar.
Fighting erupted on December 15 when Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup in the oil-rich but impoverished nation. Machar has denied this, in turn accusing the president of conducting a violent purge of his opponents and refusing to hold direct talks with Kiir. Fighting has spread across the country, with the rebels seizing several areas in the oil-rich north.
Aid workers have increased warnings of a worsening crisis for civilians affected by the conflict in the landlocked country of almost 11 million people. "All parties to the conflict have a responsibility to make sure that civilians are spared from the fighting," said Lanzer, the UN humanitarian coordinator.
"We call on all parties to facilitate aid agencies' access to civilians, and to protect and respect humanitarian activities," Lanzer said.