A new round of peace talks between South Sudan’s government and rebels aimed at ending a nearly two-month-old conflict in the world’s youngest nation has been postponed, officials said Monday.
The talks, which were due to commence in Ethiopia, are aimed at building on a shaky ceasefire agreement and bringing about a comprehensive and durable solution by addressing the root causes of the conflict.
“The talks are not resuming today,” South Sudan government spokesman Michael Makuei told AFP, without providing an explanation for the delay. A government official from host country Ethiopia confirmed the postponement.
Makuei said the talks will begin on Tuesday afternoon.
“We are informed that his excellency the prime minister of Ethiopia wants to attend the opening session. We are told that it is tomorrow afternoon,” Makuei said.
Peace delegates loyal to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and supporters of rebel leader Riek Machar, a former vice-president, signed a ceasefire on January 23 although fighting has continued in the oil-rich but impoverished country, which won independence from Khartoum in 2011.
The conflict, which started in the capital Juba in mid-December and spread rapidly to different parts of the country, has left thousands dead and displaced close to 900,000 others.The conflict has also had a tribal dimension, with the two largest ethnic communities, the Dinka, to which Kiir belongs, and Machar’s group the Nuer, both carrying out ethnic massacres.
A rebel spokesman said on Monday that his delegation wanted the release of four out of 11 political figures presented as being close to Machar still in detention in South Sudan’s capital.
“We are still demanding, the release of the remaining detainees,” rebel spokesman Yohanis Musa Pouk told AFP, adding that the rebels also wanted Kiir to step down until elections are held in 2015.
“We should have an independent person leading the government until we go to the polls,” he said.
Pouk also said he was not optimistic about the success of the negotiations “because we know that our government is not serious about the talks”.
Eleven South Sudanese political figures were arrested in Juba when the fighting broke out there in mid-December. Seven of them were freed at the end of January and are set to take part in the new negotiations, according to IGAD, the regional grouping that is helping mediate the talks.
The government side wants to try the four who are still detained, along with two other political figures including Machar himself who are on the run.
The detainees had been a major obstacle to progress in the first round which led to the ceasefire agreement, and the fate of the four is set to come up again in the latest talks. The military situation in this vast country practically devoid of infrastructure remains unclear.
During the two-week break in talks IGAD said its mediators briefed the heads of state of member countries, and that the first IGAD officials tasked with monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire were also deployed. Analysts warned against over-optimism on the talks.
“The negotiations are a stopgap measure. The institutional deficiences that have brought about the violence remain,” wrote Peter Biar Ajak, director of the Centre for Strategic Analysis and Research in Juba.
“For its (own) sake and the sake of this young country, the political leadership of South Sudan must complete the task it aborted of building basic institutions of governance,” Ajak said in an op-ed in the International New York Times last week.