East African leaders attempting to broker a ceasefire in South Sudan said in a statement Friday that the country’s embattled president, Salva Kiir (pictured right), had commited "to an immediate cessation of hostilities".
The statement by the regional bloc, known as IGAD, urged rebel leader Riek Machar (left) “to make similar commitments”.
The statement said IGAD opposed a violent change of government in the world's newest country and urged Kiir and his rivals to start peace talks before the end of the year.
Kiir was not present at the IGAD talks, which took place in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, nor were any representatives of Machar.
In another indication that diplomatic efforts may have started to bear fruit, the US special envoy to South Sudan said later in the day that the government in Juba had agreed to release most politicians arrested after violence broke out in Juba on December 15.
US envoy Donald Booth told South Sudan state television that Kiir had agreed to release all but three of the senior politicians – a key rebel condition for peace talks.
A presidential spokesman later announced the release of the first two prisoners, though confirming that three others would remain in custody over corruption allegations.
The UN says at least 1,000 people have been killed and more than 120,000 have been displaced by the violence in South Sudan, which Kiir has described as an attempted coup by his former deputy Machar.
Machar has denied there was a coup attempt, claiming instead that the violence broke out when presidential guards from Kiir's majority Dinka tribe tried to disarm guards from his Nuer ethnic group.
The fighting, which has exposed ethnic rifts within the oil-rich but impoverished country, showed no sign of abating on Friday.
Shortly after the IGAD statement’s release, a South Sudanese army spokesman told Reuters that rebel forces loyal to Machar had been defeated in Malakal, the capital of major oil producing Upper Nile state, after four days of intense fighting.
That claim was promptly dismissed by rebel representatives, who said they controlled “the whole of Malakal”.
The worsening unrest has disrupted South Sudan’s oil production, which accounts for 98% of its revenue.
As clashes spread across the country, the UN Security Council voted earlier this week to almost double the number of peacekeeping troops there to 12,500. A UN spokesperson said a first contingent of policemen from the Democratic Republic of Congo had arrived late on Friday.
Date created : 2013-12-27