BEIRUT

Middle East

S.Sudan rebel chief agrees to direct peace talks: Ban

This United Nations handout photo shows UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he tours Shams Solar Power Plant in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on May 5, 2014. AFP PHOTO/UNITED NATIONS/ESKINDER DEBEBE/HANDOUT

JUBA: South Sudan's rebel chief Riek Machar has said he will attend direct talks with President Salva Kiir in a bid to end to a four-month long civil war, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday.

Ban, who is visiting war-torn South Sudan, told reporters that Machar promised he "will be present" at talks in the Ethiopian capital.

Ban's comments came moments after he spoke to the rebel chief via satellite telephone from his remote bush hideout.

Kiir has already promised to attend talks with his arch-rival, and Ban said the meeting had been tentatively scheduled for Friday, although the date may be pushed back as Machar has said it will take time for him to travel there.

Machar, who was forced to flee his rebel base into the remote bush near the border with Ethiopia after a major government assault captured his former headquarters at the weekend, pledged to do all he could to attend, Ban said.

The UN chief's one-day visit, coming as rebels and government forces battle for control of a key oil town, is the latest major push for a ceasefire to the conflict, which has seen the world's youngest nation collapse amid a brutal cycle of war crimes.

"I received the call from Dr Riek Machar... he said that he has been invited by the prime minister of Ethiopia (to attend the talks)," Ban said.

"He responded positively that he will be present in Addis Ababa," Ban said, adding Machar said he "will try his level best because he is in a very remote area".

Ban's visit comes days after US Secretary of State John Kerry flew into the capital, a visit in which he extracted promises from Kiir to meet face-to-face with Machar, a former vice-president.

But despite warnings of sanctions if fighting continued, the government has pushed forward a major offensive to claw back towns from the gunmen.

However, until speaking to Ban, Machar had never formally confirmed he would attend talks.

The war has claimed thousands -- and possibly tens of thousands -- of lives, with over 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes. Almost five million people are in need of aid, according to the UN.

Both sides in the conflict have been accused of widespread ethnic massacres, rape and recruitment of thousands of child soldiers.

 

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