— Releasing their imprisoned colleagues will be a top priority for South Sudanese rebels during peace talks that are to start Friday in Ethiopia. The government arrested some pro-rebel officials during the initial outbreak of fighting in South Sudan's capital, Juba, last month.
Delegates of former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar see the release of detained prisoners as an important goal during the peace talks.
The rebels and delegates of the South Sudanese government are set to start face-to-face negotiations Friday.
Spokesperson for the rebel troops Hussein Mar Nyuot said the issue of the detainees is a very serious matter, as he feels they should also participate in the negotiations:
“With the prisoners, they were actually detained because of [the] alleged coup. And these are the senior members of the SPLM, which is actually the ruling party of the country. And we want them to be part of these talks because what caused the problem is actually an issue of conflict within the SPLM,” said Nyuot.
Delegates arrived in Addis Ababa on Wednesday and Thursday, and are separately meeting with officials of the East African bloc IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development).
The negotiations will start while fighting continues in South Sudan. Rebels reclaimed the key city of Bor Wednesday, 120 kilometers outside Juba. They also control Jonglei state and the two oil-rich states of Upper Nile and Unity.
Along with a possible ceasefire, negotiators will likely discuss the outbreak of ethnic violence between supporters of Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe, and supporters President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka.
But spokesperson Nyuot said the topics to be discussed have not been decided.
“We are positive, and will see how it goes tomorrow. I do not want to predict. I do not want to set the agenda before people actually agree on the agenda. I do not want to expose our agenda, what we are coming, because the mediators will have to put the agenda together,” said Nyuot.
Fighting in South Sudan started December 15, when a group of soldiers attacked army headquarters in Juba. The next day, President Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup.
The fighting has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced about 200,000 others. It is feared the conflict might escalate into an all-out civil war.
President Kiir has said there will be no power-sharing deal.
South Sudan is the world's newest nation, having separated from Sudan in July 2011 after decades of war.
Additional reporting by VOA's South Sudan in Focus:
Members of the South Sudan rebel delegation attend the opening ceremony of South Sudan's peace negotiations, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 4, 2014.
Taban Deng Gai, left, head of the rebel delegation and South Sudan's leader of the government delegation, Nhial Deng Nhial, attend the opening ceremony of South Sudan's peace negotiations, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 4, 2014.
Unidentified members of the delegation from the South Sudan government and western observers meet at the Sheraton Hotel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 4, 2014.
A displaced mother and her baby, one of the few to have a mosquito net, wake up at a refugee camp, Awerial, South Sudan, Jan. 2, 2014.
A young displaced girl carries a bucket of water back to her makeshift shelter at a United Nations compound. The compound has become home to thousands of people displaced by the recent fighting, Juba, South Sudan, Dec. 31, 2013.
Displaced people gather inside a mosquito net tent as they flee from the fighting between the South Sudanese army and rebels in Bor town, in Juba, South Sudan, Dec. 30, 2013.
A displaced woman hangs up laundry on the plastic sheeting wall of a latrine at a United Nations compound, Juba, South Sudan, Dec. 31, 2013.
Yared, 2, is held by his mother, Madhn, who fled from the town of Bor a few days ago. She receives medicine for her child at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) medical tent, at a United Nations compound, Juba, South Sudan, Dec. 31, 2013.
A young displaced boy rests on the wheel arch of a water truck while others fill containers from it, at a United Nations compound, Juba, South Africa, Dec. 31, 2013.
A family makes tea outside their makeshift shelter at a United Nations compound, Juba, South Sudan, Dec. 31, 2013.
A general view of a camp for displaced people set up in a United Nations compound in Bor, South Sudan, Dec. 25, 2013.
South Sudan army soldiers hold their weapons as they ride on a truck in Bor, Dec. 25, 2013.
Machar told VOA South Sudan in Focus Wednesday that President Kiir was responsible for much of the unrest, and that peace cannot be achieved under Kiir's leadership.
"He has disunited the country. There is a massacre in Juba, 'ethnic cleansing' in Juba," he said. "I don't think Salva Kiir can unite the people anymore."
Machar said South Sudan's citizens should join him in a bid to force the president to step down, if he does not do so voluntarily.
Listen to our full interview with Riek Machar conducted by John Tanza: