ADDIS ABABA - The chief negotiator for the main rebel group in South Sudan said Monday he is not optimistic that the warring parties will meet an August 17 deadline to sign a peace deal.
But government spokesman Michael Makuei said he is holding out hope that an agreement will be signed and 20 months of bloodshed will end.
Taban Deng Gai, the lead negotiator for Riek Machar's SPLM-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), said President Salva Kiir’s government is making unreasonable demands at the talks in Addis Ababa and undermining chances that the two sides will reach a deal by next week.
"We wish that we could have peace before the 17th of this month, but... as we go along, discussing the issues, we discovered that the gap is still wide between us and the government,” he said.
Government spokesman Michael Makuei said he hoped that, as the talks continue, "Some of us may have a change of heart or a change of mind and make concessions."
Deng said the issue of demilitarization is a particular sticking point at the talks. The compromise peace deal that IGAD put forward to get the two sides to lay down arms calls for the capital, Juba, to be demilitarized during a two-and-a-half-year transitional period. But that does not go far enough for the SPLM-IO, which wants the whole of South Sudan to be free of weapons during the transitional period.
Stephen Par Kual, the spokesman for the SPLM-IO at the talks, said the opposition is calling for sweeping disarmament because the people of South Sudan have lost trust in the army. He said peace would only be possible if a neutral force is responsible for ensuring security everywhere in South Sudan.
IGAD-Plus has suggested in the compromise deal that foreign forces from the United Nations, the African Union and IGAD member states should be in charge of security in Juba until the end of the transitional period.
But South Sudan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter Bashir Gbandi, said bringing foreign troops in to South Sudan to watch over its people and towns would not be a viable solution.
"As much as we appreciate any solution that should come from our friends in the region and the international community, we want to own the process," he said.
"We want to help build self-confidence in ourselves, build trust. The conflict has destroyed the confidence that exists between us," he said.
??IGAD-Plus mediators are expected to provide an alternative to demilitarization and present it to the warring parties when the talks resume Tuesday. No details were available as to what that alternative might entail.