South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has called on rival leader Riek Machar to meet for talks, in an effort to save a peace deal threatened by days of heavy gun and artillery battles in the capital.
Residents of Juba tell VOA the city remained calm Thursday, three days after a cease-fire took effect, but that people remain on edge and are not sending their children to school in case fighting resumes.
Speaking to reporters at the presidential compound in Juba, President Kiir said he does not want further bloodshed in South Sudan and wants Machar, the country’s top vice president, to come back “so we can chart the way forward.”
Machar has stayed out of sight since taking part in a July 8 news conference with Kiir as government and opposition forces battled outside the compound and in other parts of the capital.
The government later said more than 250 people died in Juba that day, the majority being opposition soldiers who support Machar.
Kiir appeared Thursday with African Union special envoy Alpha Oumar Konare, a former president of Mali, and cease-fire monitoring chief Festus Mogae, the former president of Botswana.
The president said he spoke to Machar earlier in the day and asked him to return but added, “It was difficult for him to accept.” The president said he is ready to protect Machar and his allies if they come to the compound.
African Union and United Nations officials have called on South Sudan's leaders to ensure the world's youngest country does not slide back into civil war. Officials have warned of a severe humanitarian crisis in the country brought on by disrupted harvests and the displacement of more than 2 million people.
The government has blamed the opposition for starting the clashes last week. It said opposition soldiers opened fire on government soldiers at a checkpoint on July 7, killing five people.
Officials have also said Machar’s spokesman circulated a false report on the 8 that said Machar was about to be arrested, prompting hundreds of opposition soldiers to race to the presidential compound.
Neither Machar nor his spokesman has replied to the accusations.
Fighting between pro-Kiir and pro-Machar forces began in December 2013, five months after Kiir fired Machar as the country’s vice president. The conflict degenerated into ethnic violence involving Kiir’s Dinka tribe and Machar’s tribe, the Nuer.
Under heavy international pressure, Kiir and Machar signed a peace agreement in Addis Ababa last August. The sides formed a transitional government earlier this year after the government agreed to let hundreds of Machar’s soldiers be stationed in and around Juba for his protection.