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South Sudan Cease-Fire May Hinge on Release of Detainees

South Sudanese soldiers listen during a briefing at the army general headquarters in Juba, Jan. 8, 2014.
South Sudanese soldiers listen during a briefing at the army general headquarters in Juba, Jan. 8, 2014.
Talks to end fighting between South Sudan's government and rebels have made only minor progress. The rebels have signaled they are unlikely to sign a proposed cease-fire agreement unless the government frees 11 pro-rebel officials detained soon after the fighting began last month.

The talks kicked off Tuesday in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, under the mediation of the East African bloc IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority for Development.

Mediators traveled to South Sudan's capital, Juba, to discuss the proposed cease-fire with South Sudanese President Salva Kirr. They were expected to return to Addis Ababa on Tuesday, but were not back by late Wednesday.

The head of the South Sudanese government delegation, Michael Makuei, believes once the mediators come back, an agreement can be signed quickly:

“We are optimistic that will be in a position to sign cessation of hostilities soon so that we will stop this fighting,” he said.

But the rebel delegation seems less positive. The rebels have maintain the release of the 11 detainees is a critical point.

The pro-rebel officials were arrested and accused of attempting a coup last month. South Sudan's government said Tuesday it will not free the men until "legal prodcedures" are completed.

The head of the rebel delegation, General Taban Deng Gai, says the detainees should be released unconditionally.

“We believe that cessation of hostilities [is] also very important. The two issues, the release of detainees and cessation of hostilities, are the same face of the same coin,” he said.

The talks are expected to continue despite reports of continued fighting.

A South Sudanese radio station said the town of Mayom in Unity State has been "destroyed" after two days of heavy fighting between army forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and defectors who back the president's rival, Riek Machar.

The U.N. mission in South Sudan said Tuesday that most villages along the road from Mayom to nearby Pariyang appeared to be burned or looted. U.N. humanitarian official Toby Lanzer said Wednesday he would go to Unity State to learn more.

The rebels said in the last 48 hours they have repelled government attacks on their positions west of the capital, Juba, and south of Bor, the rebel-held capital of Jonglei state.

Fighting broke out December 15 in South Sudan, after a clash in the army headquarters. The fighting soon grew to include ethnic violence, with members of the Nuer and Dinka tribes attacking each other. The violence has raised fears of resulting in an all-out civil war. IGAD member Uganda has sent in troops to support the government of South Sudan.

The violence has created a humanitarian crisis in the world's newest country, with more than 1,000 killed and more than 200,000 displaced from their homes.