South Sudan’s government on Friday said it was pulling out of peace talks to end a 20-month-long civil war after rebel forces split despite international threats of sanctions.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in a war marked by widespread atrocities on both sides, and diplomats warned the collapse of the latest peace efforts could trigger “serious consequences” for the rival leaders.
“We suspend the peace talks until the two rebel factions sort out their differences,” said Eastern Equatoria Governor Louis Lobong, one of 10 powerful state governors, after they all met with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir.
“It is better to go slowly, but surely, rather than rush and sign a peace that will create problems,” Lobong told reporters at the presidential palace.
Despite the announced suspension, peace negotiations continued on Friday in Ethiopia, where South Sudan’s government delegation remained tight-lipped about the talks’ future.
Amid intense international pressure and tomorrow deadline for an agreement, it remained unclear if Kiir would still travel to Addis Ababa to meet with rebel chief and former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar, and diplomats on Friday said they still hoped leaders could strike a deal.
South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings that has split the poverty-stricken landlocked country along ethnic lines.
Regional mediators, backed by US President Barack Obama during his recent visit to Ethiopia, had given Kiir and Machar until tomorrow to halt the civil war.
However, on Tuesday last week top rebel generals said they had split from Machar, accusing him of seeking power for himself, and adding they would not recognize any deal agreed.
Obama has warned Kiir and Machar that if they failed to strike a deal, the US would “move forward with a different plan, and recognize that those leaders are incapable of creating the peace that is required.”
The war has been characterized by ethnic massacres and rape. Recent attacks have included castration, burning people alive and tying children together before slitting their throats.
More than 70 percent of the country’s 12 million people need assistance, while 2.2 million people have fled their homes the UN says, with areas on the brink of famine.
The latest round of talks opened on Aug. 6, mediated by regional eight-nation bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development, as well as the UN, African Union, China and the “troika” of Britain, Norway and the US.
Envoys have said international patience has run out.
British Minister of State for International Development Grant Shapps on Friday urged the leaders to still strike a deal.
“If this opportunity is not seized by South Sudan’s government and opposition, we would need to consider other options, including the African Union’s earlier call for targeted sanctions and a UN arms embargo,” Shapps said in a statement.
However, others warned sanctions might have little impact. The UN last month blacklisted six commanders — three generals from each side — but that has apparently had little effect on the war.
“They have been warned about sanctions for the last four months,” said Berouk Mesfin of the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank based in Ethiopia. “Don’t you think they’ve had the time to prepare and hide their money? The borders are porous and they have enough weapons at their disposal.”
During previous peace talks held in luxury Ethiopian hotels, Kiir, Machar and their entourages ran up millions of dollars in expenses while failing to sign a single lasting agreement.
At least seven ceasefires have been agreed and then broken within days, if not hours.
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