A peace deal for South Sudan hung in the balance Friday as the government in Juba announced that President Salva Kiir would not travel to Addis Ababa for the final days of talks to end a 20-month conflict.
Cabinet Affairs Minister Martin Elia Lomoro told reporters in Juba the government has also decided to recall the entire negotiating team from Addis.
Lomoro said Mr. Kiir would stay away from the talks until the government could establish who his main interlocutor would be in Addis.
"If the president is going to go to Addis Ababa, he must go with a clear mind as to who he is going to meet and negotiate with," Lomoro said.
He said there has been confusion as to whom Mr. Kiir would sit across the negotiating table from after a group of military commanders split from Machar's SPLM-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) group and announced that they no longer recognized Machar as their leader.
In an interview with South Sudan in Focus, one of the generals who formed the splinter group, Gathoth Gatkuoth, condemned both Machar and Kiir, saying they are taking part in peace talks in Addis Ababa not for the good of the South Sudanese people but to secure their positions in a future government.
Lomoro said the government of South Sudan was also unhappy with a warning from the lead mediator at the talks, Seyoum Mesfin, who said Thursday that negotiators would not be allowed to leave Addis Ababa unless they sign a peace deal by the August 17 deadline.
“This, we feel, is not the attitude and language of a mediator, but a language of somebody who has bad intentions for the Republicof South Sudan,” Lomoro said. “And we think that the IGAD leadership should really rethink the way that they approach the mediation.”
Earlier this week, Lomoro accused the IGAD-Plus mediation team of bias after they expelled him from the talks. Lomoro, who is in Mr. Kiir's cabinet, was representing an opposition party at the talks.
The lead government negotiator at the talks, Nhial Deng Nhial, gave a different explanation for why Mr. Kiir would not travel to Addis Ababa as expected on Friday. He said the South Sudanese president only received a formal invitation to attend the talks on Thursday.
“Obviously, on such short notice, you wouldn’t expect him to come,” Deng told South Sudan in Focus in a telephone interview from Addis.
Deng also flatly denied that he and his team have been ordered back to Juba.
"Absolutely not, we have not been recalled," he said. "I am still here with the entire team in Addis Ababa."
Deng said the two sides were still “working towards the objective” of signing a peace deal by the deadline on Monday.
The chief negotiator for the government said nothing indicated to him that the IGAD-Plus mediation team will strictly enforce Monday’s deadline for a peace deal to be signed.
“We interact almost on a daily basis with the mediators and we have not had the impression with them that the deadline on the 17th must be met,” he said.
The last time the two sides met, in March, to try to negotiate a "final" peace deal to end 20 months of fighting, IGAD pushed back the deadline for an agreement by one day. No agreement was signed in March and fighting escalated in parts of South Sudan almost immediately after that round of talks collapsed.
The IGAD-Plus mediation team said it has not had official confirmation from Juba that Mr. Kiir will stay away from the talks, and refused to comment.