South Sudan’s foreign minister says President Salva Kiir is committed to a peaceful political settlement to the ongoing civil conflict as the warring factions begin peace negotiations in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Barnaba Marial Benjamin says Mr. Kiir is willing to hold face-to-face talks with his sacked former vice president Riek Machar. The talks are sanctioned by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional bloc.
In an interview with VOA, foreign minister Benjamin says Machar is to blame for the political crisis that led to the “disaster.” Representatives of the two warring factions are in Ethiopia as part of negotiating efforts to resolve the conflict.
“We hope the government team will negotiate to try to resolve the crisis,” said Benjamin. “We are optimistic this would have to be resolved by talking to each other. The government is determined to see that this thing is resolved because we are not interested for our people to die in a senseless war really.”
According to the United Nations the clashes that began last month have left at least 1,000 people dead and tens of thousands displaced from their homes in Africa’s newest nation.
The wave of violence in South Sudan continues, despite calls by regional leaders, the African Union, and the international community for a ceasefire to allow peace negotiations to the end the conflict.
The violence erupted after President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused the former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, of attempting a coup. Mr. Macher, who is in hiding, has denied the accusation.
Some observers say President Kiir’s coup accusation appears to have lost traction due to the lack of evidence to support it. Benjamin insists there was a coup attempt to topple the Kiir administration.
“It is known by all standards that if somebody wants to change an elected democratic government and authority and you want to change that government through the use of force, that is what is called a coup,” said Benjamin.
“The pronouncement of Dr. Riek [Machar] was that he wanted to become the president of this country ... that is why now he is attacking government positions and taking over places, appointing people to constitutional posts in those areas where he has obtained authority. What will you call that?” he asked.
Benjamin says the national army is carrying out its constitutional mandate to protect the country’s territorial integrity in the conflict.
“If there is a rebellion that targets government institutions and government authority, it is the duty of that country to defend the authority and the sovereignty of the country including the protection of its citizens,” said Benjamin. “The government is in self-defense of a constitutional position, and I hope the cessation of hostilities will come as a result of some agreement to be done at the peace talks.”
News reports say ethnic tension between the two groups is fueling the conflict, with members of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups targeting each other.
Benjamin says President Kiir is ready to hold direct talks with Machar.
“As soon as that is requested by the IGAD countries at Addis Ababa and by the negotiating team should there come a time where it would now need the intervention, direct talks between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, he would in fact respond to that immediately,” said Benjamin.
He expressed hope the Addis Ababa talks would lead to a peaceful settlement of the conflict.