ADDIS ABABA —
The South Sudan peace talks in Addis Ababa hit another stumbling block Wednesday as the government and rebel sides locked horns over the future make-up of the national army.
The government representative on a committee discussing security issues at the talks, Peter Bashir Bandit, said negotiators for Riek Machar's SPLM in Opposition (SPLM-IO) rebel group want to have two separate armies during a so-called pre-transition period that is set to begin on April 1.
But Bashir said that the two sides agreed in an earlier round of peace talks, held in the northwestern Ethiopian city of Bahir Dar, that "the notion of two armies will not be there..."
"During the pre-transition period, as per the agreement we reached in Bahir Dar, we were supposed to have the two forces combined, disengaged and disarmed," Bashir said.
Under the terms of a power-sharing proposal put forward by regional bloc IGAD, the warring sides in South Sudan have until March 5 to reach a final peace deal. Four weeks after that, on April 1, the country will begin a pre-transition period that will lead to the creation by July 9 - the country's fourth anniversary of independence - of a transitional government of national unity.
The SPLM-IO delegate on the security committee, Puot Kang Chol, said the rebel group will not disband its forces until South Sudan has reformed its army as a professional and disciplined force.
"There is a need for us to have two armies and then work out a mechanism for the amalgamation of the forces so that we form an army that belongs to the people of South Sudan, not an army that belongs to an individual or tribe," he said.
On Tuesday, when the talks in Addis Ababa got under way in earnest, delegates on the governance and finance committees disagreed on key issues. Two major issues are how to share South Sudan's wealth and whether an agreement on reunifying the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) political party should serve as a guide when the transitional government is being formed.
IGAD has given the warring sides three days to iron out their differences and report back to the mediators.
IGAD has been trying for nearly 14 months to broker peace in South Sudan. The regional bloc's chief mediator for South Sudan, Ethiopian diplomat Seyoum Mesfin, has said this latest round of talks in Addis Ababa is South Sunda's last chance to restore peace.
Norway's special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Jens-Peter Kjemprud, said the differences between the government and rebels are not insurmountable.
"They should be able to be solved if the necessary will is shown from all parties," Kjemprud said.
An IGAD official who asked to remain anonymous told South Sudan in Focus that the mediators are not happy with the slow progress at the talks and reminds both sides that the March 5 deadline will not be extended.