— Forces loyal to former South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar said Thursday they are prepared to take part in talks to end violence in the world's newest nation, as the head of the U.N. Mission in the country warned that the fighting was threatening South Sudan's existence as a nation.
James Gatdet Dak, a spokesman for Machar, said the ex-vice president, who has been in hiding since the unrest broke out on Dec. 15, "made it clear that he was ready for the talks" and has already named delegates to the negotiations, which would be held in Addis Ababa.
But Machar's side insisted that, before the talks go ahead, President Salva Kiir must release 11 political leaders who were detained when the violence first erupted -- because the detainees are part of the negotiating team chosen by the former vice president.
The nationhood painstakingly built over decades of conflict and strife is at stake.
"So President Kiir will release them, then they will be ready to go to Addis for talks,” he said.
South Sudanese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Mawien Makol Arik said the government would not agree to the request to free the 11 political leaders.
"The president is willing to go into dialogue with this faction, provided there’s no pre-condition, which would include the release of the political prisoners,” he said.
Kiir met Thursday in Juba with African officials including Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to try to chart a way out of the crisis, which erupted on Dec. 15 in what Kiir said was a failed coup orchestrated by Machar.
South Sudan's Nationhood at Stake: UNMISS
Hilde Johnson, the head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), commended the "intense and ongoing efforts of South Sudan's neighbors to seek a peaceful resolution to the current crisis" and called on the country's leaders to urgently "order their forces to lay down their arms and give peace a chance."
"What has happened this last week has for so many South Sudanese brought back the nightmares of the past," Johnson told reporters via a video link from UNMISS headquarters in Juba.
"The nationhood painstakingly built over decades of conflict and strife is at stake. And for us, one of the most important things is to have those nightmares end," she said.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said "the detainees who are suspects of the coup" were one of several issues discussed by Kiir and his regional counterparts.
The group of detained political leaders got a visit early this week from U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, who said they are "secure and well taken care of" and wanted "to play a constructive role in ending the crisis through peaceful political dialogue and national reconciliation."