— South Sudan’s government says a meeting with regional leaders has helped move forward plans for a dialogue between the president and his political rival to end the violence that has divided the country. The development comes as a humanitarian crisis continues to deepen in the young nation.
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir met Thursday with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in capital city Juba to determine a way to end the ongoing crisis.
A spokesman for South Sudan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Mawien Makol Arik, said the leaders discussed efforts to bring Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar into a dialogue.
Kiir has accused Machar and his supporters of being behind an attempted coup on December 15 that has divided the military against itself in some areas and has stoked ethnic tensions. Machar denies the coup accusations, but he has called for the military to remove Kiir from power.
Machar has said he is ready for talks if the government releases his political allies, who were arrested during the first days of the crisis.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Arik said the government will not agree to that request.
"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,” said Arik.
No deadline has been set for the start of negotiations.
Arik said the mechanisms for the way forward will be discussed further on Friday in a meeting of representatives of the Horn of Africa regional grouping, IGAD, in Nairobi.
Meanwhile, South Sudan’s military says troops battled rebel soldiers Thursday in Unity state, a key oil-producing region where violence between factions of the armed forces has been severe.
U.N. officials have said more than 1,000 people may have been killed across the country since fighting began earlier this month. The United Nations says it hopes to begin receiving within the next 48 hours critical reinforcements of military hardware and personnel for its overstretched peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, which is on the verge of civil war.
At a press conference Thursday, U.N. Special Representative for South Sudan Hilde Johnson welcomed any efforts to reconcile the warring factions, in the interest of civilians caught in the crossfire.
“Establishing a protective environment for civilians so that they feel safe and can return home with their families can solve this problem for all of us and that what we hope to see and that’s going to be a major task for us as a mission and for the government,” said Johnson.
Tens of thousands of civilians have taken refuge at U.N. bases across the country, putting a strain on resources.
The U.N. Security Council agreed Tuesday to send an additional 5,000 peacekeepers to the country.
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.