Peace talks involving representatives of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his ousted vice president Riek Machar have begun in Ethiopia. It is hoped the talks will end three weeks of bloody conflict.
Both sides sent a delegation to Friday's talks at a luxury hotel in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Negotiations between the two warring sides are to be mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a bloc comprising six East African countries - Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda.
"The direct talks will start tomorrow or the day after tomorrow," Yohanes Pouk, spokesperson for the rebel negotiating team said on Friday.
"For now, we are holding separate talks with IGAD. We are open to discussing an end to violence at these talks," he added.
Ethiopia's foreign minister confirmed the talks were underway, adding that the IGAD "was committed to support in any way possible."
Earlier this week, President Salva Kiir offered a peace agreement to the rebel leader, his former vice-president, Riek Machar.
"We are participating in talks because we want peace for our people even though the rebel groups have not accepted a cessation of hostilities," the government said Thursday ahead of the talks.
As the talks got underway, fighting continued in South Sudan, with government troops vowing to re-take the town of Bor from rebel forces.
The ongoing conflict prompted a top United Nations aid official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, to warn troops and rebels to protect aid workers and civilians. He described the situation in the country as "critical."
The United States embassy in Juba ordered staff and US nationals to leave the country on an evacuation flight organized because of the "deteriorating security situation."
Fighting in the world's most recently established nation began on December 15, when President Kiir accused Machar of a coup attempt. Since then at least 1,000 people have been killed, oil production has been interrupted, and Western and regional powers have raised concerns of an all-out civil war breaking out.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontiers reported that about 70,000 civilians had fled Bor, seeking refuge in the nearby town of Awerial. Others were forced to hide in swamps. "Living conditions are verging on the catastrophic," MSF said.
Continued fighting across the country has seen more than 180,000 people displaced, according to the United Nations.
jlw/tj (dpa, AFP)