Face-to-face talks between rival parties in South Sudan have been delayed, government and rebel delegations said, dashing hopes of a swift ceasefire to end raging battles and risks of all-out civil war.
South Sudan information minister, Michael Makuei, part of the delegation to the talks in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, as well as the rebel’s spokesman, Yohanis Musa Pouk, said the two sides would not meet on Saturday until an agenda had been drafted by negotiators and agreed by both sides.
It was not clear when they would be completed.
Makuei confirmed that the two leaders of the delegations met briefly late on Friday, although proper talks had not begun.
“They met,” Makuei told AFP, adding that teams were now “waiting to hear the way forward” from the negotiators, who are from the regional East African IGAD bloc of nations.
“The heads of the two delegations need to agree on an agenda… maybe tomorrow or after tomorrow,” Pouk told AFP.
On Friday, the two sides held preliminary meetings before the official start of negotiations in a bid to end nearly three weeks of conflict, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry said.
Dina Mufti, a spokesman for the ministry, said that representatives of the government and rebel groups were meeting in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa.
He said the meeting was necessary to bridge differences ahead of direct talks.
Dina said on Saturday the two sides would “have to continue the proxy talks”, meeting separately with negotiators.
“An agenda has to be formulated, and then after this they’ll proceed with face-to-face talks,” Dina told AFP, saying there was no timeline set for direct talks, only that they would happen “as soon as possible.”
“I cannot predict, it depends on the negotiations,” Dina added.
Thousands of people are feared to have been killed in the fighting since it erupted on December 15, pitting army units loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by his rival, former vice president Riek Machar.
Fighting intensified on the ground in South Sudan as the army moved on the rebel-held town of Bor, capital of Jonglei state.
“We have enough forces who will defeat the rebels within 24 hours,” army spokesman Philip Aguer said amid reports of heavy battles involving tanks and artillery on the outskirts of Bor, which has already exchanged hands three times since fighting began in mid-December.
“These forces – the rebels – are now retreating back,” Aguer said, quashing rebel claims that they had been marching on the capital Juba.
Rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper that his forces would hold back from attacking Juba in the hope of achieving a “negotiated settlement”.
Government forces should also stop trying to take territory under his control, Machar added.
South Sudan’s government has declared a state of emergency in Unity and Jonglei, two states whose capitals are under rebel control.
President Salva Kiir has insisted that the fighting was sparked by a coup attempt mounted by soldiers loyal to Machar on December 15.
But that account has been disputed by some officials of the ruling party who say the violence began when presidential guards from Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group tried to disarm those from the Nuer group of Machar.
From Juba, violence spread across the country, with forces loyal to Machar defecting and seizing territory from loyalist forces.
The US government said 20 US citizens had been flown out of the country by a military cargo plane. A spokesman for the US embassy in Juba said the evacuation was due to the “deteriorating security situation”.
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal. Before that, the south fought decades of war with Sudan.