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Fighting in S. Sudan Threatens Peace Talks

FILE - South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar, right, and South Sudan's President Salva Kiir hold a priest's hands before signing an earlier peace agreement in Addis Ababa, May 9, 2014.

South Sudan's warring parties are sitting down for another round of peace talks in Ethiopia, though recent fighting is once again threatening to derail the process.

The latest round of talks began in Bahir Dar Monday, bringing together representatives of the government, the rebel opposition and other parties to try to hash out a deal to end violence that has killed more than 10,000 people since December.

Several previous rounds of talks, mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-nation trade bloc in East Africa, have failed to reach an agreement, while every ceasefire deal signed between the two sides has been violated.

Lead mediator Seyoum Mesfin told VOA the success of the current round depends on the will of both parties to end the fighting.

“What needs to be done, particularly during this session, is for the parties to go on into the implementation of the matrix that will lead them into the disengagement of troops and fully implement the cessation of hostilities,” he said.

Negotiators are also discussing the shape of a proposed transitional government that may include both main rivals in the conflict: President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar.

Meanwhile, new fighting erupted in the past week around Upper Nile state in areas near Malakal town as well as in Renk county, which is close to several key oil fields.

Philip Aguer, the spokesman for South Sudan's army, says forces loyal to Machar have been responsible for the violence.

“It is the [Sudan People's Liberation Army] that has been in specific locations respecting and committing itself to the cessation of hostilities," he said. "Riek Machar's forces have been fighting all along.”

The SPLA says it is now fully in control of Renk.

A spokesman for opposition forces, Lul Ruai Koang, told VOA that rebel forces have only responded in defense to attacks from government troops. He accused the SPLA of trying to retake territory to gain leverage in the talks.

“The government troops made a deliberate attempt to attack our positions with a view of strengthening their negotiation positions.”

Ambassador Mesfin, the lead mediator, says the conflict is political at heart, and that gaining territory will not help either side.

“Whether this party or that party gains more ground or control on the ground, this will mean practically nothing, because guns will not solve this political problem,” he said.

Mesfin says the humanitarian situation in South Sudan adds to the urgency of quickly reaching a lasting deal.

The United Nations says nearly one-and-a-half million people have been displaced since fighting broke out in December last year, amid warnings that parts of the country are facing an emergency food situation.