South Sudan’s government and rebels began formal peace talks yesterday following a night of more fighting that sent more civilians fleeing the capital, Juba.
The talks in the Ethiopian capital are aimed at ending three weeks of fighting that have already left thousands dead in the world’s newest nation.
After a preliminary meeting late on Saturday, negotiations began in earnest at 2pm, diplomats said, with regional peace brokers struggling to prevent an early breakdown.
The spokesman for South Sudan’s government delegation, South Sudanese Information Minister Michael Makuei, struck a confrontational tone by again accusing rebel leader Riek Machar of having started the fighting by attempting a coup.
“His attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government is an established fact, and not that only, but the way the international community is handling it is rather strange,” Makuei told reporters, rejecting calls for the government to release suspected rebels who are now in custody.
“They say these people have not committed anything, but why are people dying if there is no offense committed? Nobody is above the law and whatever you do, if you are found in conflict with the law, whatever you are, you must be subjected to the law. This is our position,” he said. “We are being told to negotiate with the rebels, but any rebels who have fallen in our hands will have to answer why he or she decided to take up arms against a democratically elected government.”
The conflict erupted on Dec. 15, pitting army units loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by Machar, a former vice president who was sacked in July last year.
Machar has denied attempting a coup and in turn accuses the president of conducting a violent purge of his rivals.
Juba was also rocked by heavy gunfire late on Saturday, with exchanges of automatic and heavy weapons fire heard coming from a district in the south of the city, before calm returned in the early hours of yesterday morning.
Fighting was reportedly continuing yesterday in Bor, a rebel-held town north of Juba, while clashes were also reported to have broken out during the night in Yei to the south.