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South Sudan president, rebel chief sign peace agreement

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-05-10

South Sudan’s Salva Kiir (pictured right) and rebel leader Riek Machar (left) agreed to a ceasefire deal on Friday, as they met for the first time since fierce fighting broke out in the country five months ago.

President Kiir and rebel commander Machar signed the deal at a meeting in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, after coming under growing international pressure to end ethnic fighting that has raised fears of famine and genocide.

Kiir and Machar met face-to-face for the first time since violence erupted in mid-December following a long power struggle.

The men also agreed that a transitional government offered the “best chance” to take the country towards elections next year, though there was no immediate decision on who would be part of an interim administration.

East African mediator Seyoum Mesfin from the region’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development bloc (IGAD) announced the deal, congratulating the two men of “ending to the war”.

The two rivals, who first shook hands and then prayed together, "agreed that immediately all hostile activities will stop within 24 hours from the signing of this agreement," Seyoum told reporters.

"Fighting will stop," he added.

Transition government

Kiir, explaining his olive branch to his bitter rival, told reporters that as leader he had in the past accepted compromises and had "been in a position to make peace with everybody".

The deal comes after intense lobbying from world leaders, Washington slapping sanctions on senior military commanders, and the UN warning that crimes against humanity had likely been carried out in the still raging conflict.

"I'm happy that we have this evening signed the agreement," Machar told reporters, dressed in a business suit he had swapped for military fatigues worn while fighting in the bush.

The deal recommits to an earlier ceasefire, in tatters ever since it was signed in January.

The rivals "agreed that a transition government offers the best chance to the people of South Sudan" with the promise of fresh elections, without giving a date, Seyoum said.

Both sides also "agreed to open humanitarian corridors... and to cooperate with the UN" to ensure aid is delivered to the more than five million people in need, he added.

But while both leaders promised peace, fierce fighting still rages, amid United Nations warnings of the risk of severe famine and genocide.

The war has claimed thousands – and possibly tens of thousands – of lives, with over 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes.

Aid agencies are warning that South Sudan is now on the brink of Africa's worst famine since the 1980s.

Top African Union official Smail Chergui, the pan-African bloc's peace and security commissioner, said that while the inking of the deal was welcomed, "even with the signing, given the current crisis, the restoration of peace in South Sudan will not be easy".

‘Precursors of genocide’

A UN peacekeeping mission report released Thursday said that "fighting continues with little hope that civilians will see any respite from the relentless violence".

Warning of "countless" gross human rights violations, the UN report said "there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity" have been carried out by both sides.

UN rights chief Navi Pillay said on Friday that the two leaders must "stop the killing, before the fire they have ignited makes the entire country go down in flames".

Pillay, a former head of the UN genocide court for Rwanda, said she recognised in the UN report "many of the precursors of genocide".

These included hate radio urging rape and "attacks on civilians in hospitals, churches and mosques, even attacks on people sheltering in UN compounds – all on the basis of the victims' ethnicity".

The conflict, which started as a personal rivalry between Kiir and Machar, has seen the army divide along ethnic lines, pitting members of Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer.

‘Unthinkable violence’

The United States this week unveiled its first sanctions in response to the "unthinkable violence," targeting one military leader from each side.

Despite the peace deal, fears are growing that political leaders can no longer hold back their warring forces as communities spiral into cycles of revenge attacks.

Testimonies in a report this week by Amnesty International describe civilians, including children, executed by the side of the road "like sheep" and other victims "grotesquely mutilated" with their lips sliced off.

"The longer ethnic rivalries are allowed to deepen and fester, the more fragmented South Sudan will become, making reconciliation and sustainable peace much more difficult to achieve," Amnesty warned.

The conflict erupted in December with Kiir accusing Machar of attempting a coup. Machar then fled to the bush to launch a rebellion, insisting that the president had attempted to carry out a bloody purge of his rivals.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-05-09

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