South Sudan's government and rebels finally began talks today to end weeks of bloodletting after days of delay as the United States ordered out more of its embassy staff.
However, there was no face-to-face meeting, and fighting was reported near the key town of Bor, suggesting that a halt to clashes between President Salva Kiir's SPLA government forces and rebels loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar was still a long way off.
Neighbouring countries fear that the fighting, which quickly spread out from the capital Juba last month along ethnic faultlines, could destabilise east Africa, and the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development grouping is mediating the peace talks in Ethiopia.
The talks,which had been scheduled to begin in Addis Ababa on January 1st, made a slow start today.
“Both delegations are meeting the mediators separately,” said Dina Mufti, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s foreign ministry. “We hope to bring both sides into face-to-face talks soon.”
The SPLA said its troops were fighting rebels 24km south of rebel-controlled Bor, the capital of the vast Jonglei state and site of an ethnic massacre in 1991. Bor lies 190km to the north of Juba and has changed hands three times since the unrest began.
"The rebels will be flushed out of Bor any time," SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer said.
Rebel spokesman Moses Ruai Lat, based in the northern state of Unity, said it was the government forces who were on the back foot and his advancing comrades were already “close” to Juba.
More than 1,000 people have been killed and 200,000 driven from their homes in three weeks of fighting that has raised the spectre of a civil war pitting Mr Kiir’s ethnic Dinkas against Mr Machar’s Nuer.
The US has been withdrawing nonessential embassy staff since mid-December and said it was evacuating more. It also urged all US citizens to leave South Sudan.
'Minimising our presence'
"We are not suspending our operations. We are just minimising our presence," said US ambassador Susan Page.
More than 440 US officials and private citizens have been evacuated on charter flights and military aircraft, a state department spokeswoman said in Washington.
The United States has also flown out 750 citizens of 27 other countries.
The Pentagon sent two KC-130 aircraft to pick up about 20 US diplomatic personnel from the embassy in Juba, said a US army spokesman. One landed and the other one circled nearby in case it was needed.
Mr Kiir has accused his long- term political rival Mr Machar, whom he sacked in July, of starting the fighting in a bid to seize power. Mr Machar denies the claim.
Mediators said Mr Kiir’s government and the rebels loyal to Mr Machar have agreed in principle to a ceasefire, but there is no agreement on a starting date and some diplomats say both sides still seem more intent on manoeuvring for military advantage.
The United Nations said it was planning for the number of displaced people to double in the next three months. – (Reuters)