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US envoy says S Sudan president open to talks

President Salva Kiir says will talk "without preconditions" hours after threatening to strike rebels.

Last updated: 24 Dec 2013 07:32
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President Kiir has accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, of staging a coup [Reuters]

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir is committed to begin talks with rebel leader Riek Machar, the country's former vice president, to end fighting, a senior US official said after meeting Kiir in Juba.

"President Kiir committed to me that he was ready to begin talks with Riek Machar to end the crisis without preconditions as soon as his counterpart is willing," said US special envoy to South Sudan, Donald Booth on Monday.

It was not immediately clear how soon a meeting could be arranged.

Booth was sent to South Sudan at the weekend to seek a diplomatic solution to avoid the violence spiralling into an ethnic civil war.

Earlier, Machar told Reuters news agency he was ready for dialogue but Kiir must first release his detained political allies.

The violence began last week when Kiir, a member of the majority Dinka ethnic group, accused Machar, a member of the rival Nuer ethnic group, of attempting to seize power by force.

Kiir also detained 11 politicians, some of them former ministers, in connection with the "foiled coup".

Booth said he visited the detained officials who were "secure and well taken care of."

US deploys marines

"These individuals communicated to me their desire and their readiness to play a constructive role in ending the crisis through peaceful political dialogue and national reconciliation," he said.

President Kiir said on Monday that the army will step up the fight against rebels with imminent strikes in Bor and Bentiu, but it is not clear whether this will still take place.

Meanwhile, the US military deployed about 150 marines to a base in the Horn of Africa to prepare for possible further evacuations of US citizens from the deepening conflict in South Sudan, US officials said on Monday.

The deployment of a special crisis-response team of marines, who are normally stationed at Moron Air Base in Spain, follows a thwarted evacuation attempt in South Sudan over the weekend in which four US soldiers were wounded by gunfire.

Three US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the Marines were sent to a base in Djibouti, a move that would allow them to deploy to South Sudan more quickly, if asked.

Meanwhile, United Nations (UN) chief Ban Ki-moon asked the UN Security Council on Monday to send 5,500 more peacekeepers in South Sudan to better protect civilians from violence that threatens to plunge Africa's youngest country into civil war. 

There are currently some 6,700 UN troops and 670 police officers in the UN force in South Sudan, which is known as UNMISS.

US envoy to the UN, Samantha Power, said, "the [US] is eager to work to make sure the mission has the assets to fulfill its mandate." 

French ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud told a press conference that a decision about the proposal will be made at 3pm local time on Tuesday. 

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