South Sudan's warring sides failed Thursday to meet a deadline set by East African mediators to reach a peace deal to end nearly 15 months of fighting in the world's newest nation.
As the clock ticked down on the midnight deadline, mediators from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) met separately with President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar to try to extract an 11th-hour peace agreement.
The South Sudanese rivals had held two days of face-to-face talks this week to try to iron out their differences, but like the last-ditch IGAD effort, those talks yielded little.
Even as it appeared more and more likely that Thursday's peace deadline would be missed, IGAD chief mediator Seyoum Mesfin vowed the East African bloc would not "abandon South Sudan to itself." At around 8 pm, IGAD released a statement that said Mr. Kiir and Machar "will continue negotiations" Friday.
List of disagreements
Rebel spokesman Puot Kang Chol said the two sides are at odds over a number of issues ranging from security arrangements, wealth-sharing, national debt, governance, and power-sharing in a future transitional government.
Seyoum said IGAD is running out of patience.
"It is frustrating," he said. "Here are the leaders, the two leaders… If there are two individuals in South Sudan who should be asked to be of courage and determination and political will to end this crisis, it is these two leaders. They may not be there alone, but they must be leaders and lead toward peace."
"Leading a war is easy," Seyoum said. "Being a peace hero is very difficult. They must come out and be heroes of peace.”
But Seyoum said missing the deadline did not mean IGAD's diplomatic attempt to end the conflict in South Sudan was dead and buried. The talks will continue, but IGAD will not try to broker peace for South Sudan on its own, he said.
It is advisable for peace to be agreed upon, but we cannot let people go on killing each other and abandon them... The world cannot stand on the sidelines and observe mass killings going on.Seyoum Mesfin
"IGAD will remain at the driver’s seat, but, definitely, there would be other actors who would reinforce this process," he said, naming the African Union and the United Nations as two of the outside players that IGAD would turn to for help in ending the crisis.
Seyoum said that, even if it was not the optimum solution for ending the crisis in South Sudan, the international community might impose a deal on the warring sides.
"Yes, it is advisable for peace to be agreed upon, but we cannot let people go on killing each other and abandon them, and the world cannot stand on the sidelines and observe mass killings going on,” the Ethiopian diplomat said.
Talks to end the fighting in South Sudan began 14 months ago but have yielded nothing but a cessation of hostilities agreement that was violated within hours of being signed at the end of January last year.
As the talks and fighting have ground on, tens of thousands of people have been killed, around two million have been forced from their homes, and more than half the population of 11.5 million has faced some degree of food insecurity.