ADDIS ABABA: Two warring factions from South Sudan held direct peace talks Sunday for the first time since conflict began roiling the country last month, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing for safety. The direct talks, which are focused on a cease-fire and the release of political prisoners, put representatives of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar together in Ethiopia.
South Sudan has experienced three weeks of violence. Kiir says the violence began as a coup attempt Dec. 15, though Machar’s side denies the allegation. Violence began as a political dispute but has since taken on ethnic dimensions, with tribes attacking each other.
The U.N. has said at least 1,000 people have died. Some 200,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. Rebel forces loyal to Machar now control two state capitals, including the town of Bor, about 120 kilometers north of the capital, Juba.
Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir will visit South Sudan Monday to meet Kiir for talks on the conflict, state radio announced.
Juba was rocked by heavy gunfire Sunday evening. A Reuters reporter heard gunfire coming from the direction of the military headquarters of the government SPLA forces, toward the northern outskirts of the city.
Although Juba has been largely calm since the first days of the unrest, there was also a brief gun fight Saturday evening, and residents talk of growing tensions.
After a terrifying night sheltering in their homes, Juba residents could be seen trying to get transport south to Uganda, adding to the nearly 200,000 people who have already been displaced by the conflict.
U.N. peacekeeping bases have also been overwhelmed with civilians seeking shelter, many of them fleeing violence pitting Kiir’s Dinka community against Machar’s Nuer tribe.
There was speculation that another army unit in Juba had defected to the rebels, although army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP that the government was “investigating exactly what happened.”
The army spokesman also reported ongoing clashes in the oil-producing Unity and Upper Nile states in the north, saying that government forces were advancing on the two state capitals of Bentiu and Malakal, currently in rebel hands.
Government troops were also preparing to retake Bor, capital of Jonglei State, he added.
“The SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] forces are advancing from the northern part of Bentiu. We will try to do our constitutional duty ... sooner or later our target is Bentiu,” Aguer told reporters.
“It’s [a] matter of time, our forces are advancing towards Bor,” he said, claiming that the rebels “realize they are fighting a useless war” and saying government forces were a mere 15 kilometers from the town.
The spokesman admitted that an army unit in the town of Yei, situated south of Juba and near the border with Uganda, had defected to the rebels Saturday and left the area in a number of vehicles. He also reported another defection in Western Equatoria State, an area which had so far largely escaped the fighting.
Embassies, aid groups and the U.N. have sent personnel out of the country out of fear the fighting could engulf the capital as it did in the first couple days of violence. The U.S. Embassy Friday sent more personnel out of the country.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday the beginning of direct talks was an important step but that both sides needed to put the interests of South Sudan above their own. The U.S. played a big role in bringing decades of war in the region to an end. South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011.
“I think all of us feel a very personal stake in trying to avert tribal warfare and ethnic confrontation on the ground as well as any kind of resolution of political differences by force,” Kerry said in Jerusalem.
Kerry said the U.S. would not support anyone who used force to seize power, an apparent message for Machar. The U.S. has also called on the Kiir government to release political prisoners aligned with Machar so they can take part in talks.
South Sudan Information Minister Lueth Sunday chafed at that suggestion, saying to release the political prisoners set a bad precedent.
“We are not saying we won’t release them, but it will be done according to our laws,” he said.
Lueth also threatened to detain the widow of the man regarded as the father of the country, the late John Garang. Lueth said the widow, Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, was spreading “negative propaganda.”