ADDIS ABABA: The chief mediator in peace talks between the South Sudan government and rebels said Friday he was optimistic a ceasefire will be signed soon as violence rages on in the young nation.
"If you ask me on the possibilities of signing, I am very optimistic... because we have now come a long way in establishing understanding between the parties," Seyoum Mesfin, mediator from the East African region bloc IGAD, told AFP.
He said he expects a ceasefire in "the shortest possible time", although he did not indicate a precise timing.
Seyoum's remarks come amid fresh fighting in South Sudan, as government forces closed in on the rebel-held oil hub Bentiu.
The unrest began on December 15 as a clash between army units loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to ex-vice president Riek Machar. It has escalated into war between government troops and a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and army units who have defected to the rebel side.
The United Nations estimates over 1,000 people have been killed since violence erupted last month, though aid agencies believe the death toll may be well into the thousands. Over 200,000 people have been displaced so far.
A main stumbling block in the talks, which opened last week in Addis Ababa, has been the release of 11 of Machar's allies who were detained by the government after the unrest began.
Seyoum said mediators were committed to resolving the detainee issue, but insisted their release should not be a precondition to a peace deal.
"We are hoping that we can unblock this situation, we are discussing with the delegates here," he said.
Kiir has said the detainees will not be released without a legal process, but Seyoum said mediators discussed other options, including transferring them to IGAD or United Nations custody or releasing them on bail.
"He's considering all the options," Seyoum said of Kiir, insisting that those jailed have a crucial role to play in peace talks.
"They have been high government officials, their role in an all-inclusive political dialogue to address this critical issue and crisis is very important," he said.
Talks are expected to continue Friday, with both sides reviewing IGAD's latest ceasefire proposal.
Seyoum said he does not expect the situation in South Sudan to worsen, but said reaching a deal soon is critical amid continued unrest.
"We cannot allow violence and killings to continue while the parties are sitting here and negotiating," he said.