ADDIS ABABA: South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar’s demand for the release of detainees remains a stumbling block to a cease-fire deal aimed at halting violence in the world’s youngest state, a U.S. envoy said Sunday.
More than three weeks of fighting, often along ethnic fault lines, has pitted President Salva Kiir’s SPLA government forces against rebels loyal to former Vice President Machar and has brought the oil-exporting nation close to civil war.
Although both sides have held talks in recent days in Addis Ababa in a bid to agree a cease-fire, there has been little progress after Kiir refused a rebel demand to release 11 detainees arrested in December over an alleged coup plot.
Three African envoys of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional grouping of east African nations that initiated the talks, met Machar Saturday in an effort to agree the terms of truce, but he turned them down.
“Some of the major concerns he raised were the release of detainees which he has made a precondition since the beginning for the signing of the cessation of hostilities agreement,” said Donald Booth, the U.S. envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, who accompanied the IGAD envoys.
“What we really need to do is continue to press the government to find a way to enable those detainees to participate in political talks.”
Following the meeting with Machar, an IGAD official said Sunday that its envoys had once again traveled to South Sudan’s capital Juba to try to convince Kiir to release the detainees.
The envoys have failed so far to have the detainees freed, with Kiir insisting that they will be investigated and those found culpable will face the due process of the law.
The fighting is the worst in South Sudan since it won independence from Sudan in 2011. The clashes have displaced more than 200,000 people and cut oil exports.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 13, 2014, on page 10.