South Sudan's warring factions have signed a ceasefire plan, a move that is expected to end weeks of deadly fighting between the government and rebel forces.
Representatives for President Salva Kiir and his opponents signed the plan Thursday in Ethiopia's capital, where they have been meeting with mediators from East African regional bloc known as IGAD .
Representatives at the talks signed two agreements. One agreement calls for both sides to immediately cease all military operations and refrain from any action that could lead to confrontations. It also calls for the establishment of a verification and monitoring team.
The second agreement deals with the status of detainees. Earlier, negotiations had bogged down over the government's refusal to release 11 political opposition supporters who were detained shortly after the crisis erupted in mid-December. The agreement calls for setting up a national reconciliation process that includes "detainees and political actors."
However, a government representative at the talks told a reporter for VOA that the detainees would still have to face due process of law.
In a statement, IGAD hailed the accord. Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin, the special envoys chairman, called the signing an "important milestone" in a process that could lead to a peaceful political solution to South Sudan's crisis.
Negotiators agreed to meet again in early February.
Earlier this week, a U.N. human rights official said "thousands" of people had been killed since the South Sudan conflict broke out in mid-December.
South Sudan's crisis was touched off by a December gun battle at army headquarters in the capital, Juba. President Kiir accused former vice president Riek Machar of attempting a coup, a charge Machar denied.
The U.S. White House hailed word on the agreement. Spokesman Jay Carney said it was "a first critical step in ending the violence."
"The United States urges both sides to build on this momentum by moving swiftly to an inclusive poetical dialogue to resolve the underlying causes of the current conflict. The U.S. will remain a steady partner to those who choose the path of peace and continue to work for a more peaceful, democratic, unified South Sudan."
In a VOA interview, Atlantic Council Africa Center Director Peter Pham said Thursday's agreement is a "good first step." However, he says there are questions about whether the government and the opposition have full control of their forces.
"On neither side are we dealing with professional militaries of the sort that Americans and Europeans or East Asians are used to. These are units that answer to particular generals, some of whom are self-appointed even."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reacted, saying he hoped the peace deal would provide "good opportunities" for those who have been suffering.
The United Nation's humanitarian office says over the past six weeks violence in South Sudan has left more than half a million people displaced, including over 100,000 who have fled to neighboring countries.
A Thursday statement said U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos is set to begin a three-day trip to South Sudan on Monday. The U.N. said she will meet with government representatives and humanitarian groups in an effort to draw attention to the "humanitarian consequences" of the country's unrest.