ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA— The international community is urging South Sudan's government to release the last four political detainees it arrested as the country erupted in violence last month. The release would likely advance the peace process in South Sudan but that peace talks will continue even if the four men remain in custody.
Envoys of the United States, Britain, Norway, China and the European Union met Thursday with the East African regional bloc IGAD, which has been mediating peace talks between South Sudan’s fighting factions.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said South Sudan's release of seven political detainees on Wednesday should be followed by the release of the other four.
“The recent step to release seven of the eleven persons detained by the government of South Sudan can be used to create momentum and a political process, and at the same time we continue to urge the release of the remaining four detainees,” he said.
Two agreements were signed last week. One called for a cessation of hostilities, while the other dealt with the eleven opposition members who have spent more than six weeks in detention.
Burns said a full implementation of the agreements was needed as South Sudan cannot afford to miss this chance for peace.
“The truth is South Sudan, both its people and its leaders, have an important moment of choice before them. Whether to choose to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the Cessation of Hostilities agreement, and to build on it, and enduring to end the violence -- or to miss that opportunity and to allow mistrust and violence to overcome that chance,” he said.
The cessation of hostilities was supposed to take effect last week Friday. IGAD said the reports that fighting continued were not completely true and that the agreement was largely holding.
The South Sudanese rebels want the detainees released so they can take part in the political phase of the peace talks, due to start in Ethiopia on February 7.
IGAD’s lead mediator, Seyoum Mesfin, said that whether or not the last four detainees were released, the political talks would have to start.
“There is no alternative to the peace process and dialogue, both parties recognize this and they have said this and agreed upon during the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities agreement,” said Mesfin.
Ministers of the IGAD countries will meet on the sidelines of the African Union summit Friday to outline the details for the political process.
Clashes in South Sudan broke out mid-December, with army troops loyal to President Salva Kiir fighting anti-government forces.
The government accused Kiir's rival Riek Machar of leading a coup attempt, but it is not clear whether the rebels are united under Machar, who remains in hiding.