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South Sudan peace talks postponed over prisoner dispute

The latest round of South Sudan peace talks have been postponed. The rebels, led by former vice president Riek Machar, have refused to participate in the negotiations because of a dispute over political prisoners.

"We are hereby informing all parties ... that we are abstaining from participating in the next round of peace talks," Taban Deng, head of the opposition delegation, said in a statement. The latest round of negotiations had been scheduled to begin Monday in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

Deng demanded the release of four political prisoners who remained in the South Sudanese government's custody after the release of seven of their colleagues in late January.

He also called for the immediate withdrawal of Ugandan troops, who are in the country at the request of South Sudan President Salva Kiir. Deng said the rebels had evidence that the Ugandan army was "still actively engaged in combat" despite a ceasefire.

Ethnic conflict

The fighting in South Sudan began in in mid-December, when clashes erupted between the Dinka and Nuer, the respective ethnic groups of Salva and his former deputy Machar. Thousands of people have been killed and nearly 900,000 displaced in the conflict, which originated in the capital, Juba, but quickly spread throughout the world's newest country.

A ceasefire was agreed on January 23, but sporadic fighting has persisted.

The chief mediator from the eight-member regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development bloc, Seyoum Mesfin, told reporters that the rebels' boycott of the talks was a violation of the January 23 agreement.

Blocking the talks "would be tantamount to holding hostage the people and the nation because of those demands," Mesfin said.

The issue of political prisoners has been a sore point for the two sides since peace negotiations opened last month. According to IGAD, the seven prisoners released at the end of January are set to help mediate the latest round of talks.

dr/mkg (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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