South Sudanese President Salva Kiir (L), South Sudan's opposition leader Riek Machar (R) and Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (C)"Hemeti",…
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, left, South Sudan's opposition leader Riek Machar, right, and Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, Sudan's deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, hold hands after their peace talk in Juba, South Sudan, Dec. 17, 2019.

JUBA - South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar have agreed to form a transitional unity government by a February deadline even if they don't resolve key political disputes by that time.

The two leaders, who signed a peace deal in September 2018 under heavy pressure from the United Nations, the United States and regional bloc IGAD, previously missed two deadlines to form the government. One deadline was in May and the most recent was in November.

Last month, the deadline was pushed back to February, prompting the U.S. to recall its ambassador and heightening fears that the country may return to civil war.

South Sudan's five-year conflict left hundreds of thousands of people dead and forced millions to flee to other countries or U.N.-run protection sites within the nation. A power struggle between the two men led to the conflict.

FILE - South Sudanese refugees are seen at the Nguenyyiel refugee camp, Ethiopia, Oct. 24, 2017.

Kiir and his former deputy held three days of talks in the capital, Juba, this week with little tangible progress reported. The two emerged from an hour-long meeting Tuesday at the State House to say they agreed to uphold an ongoing cease-fire.

"We said that after 100 days we must form the government of national unity and if arrangements are not complete, we shall form a transitional government of national unity to implement the outstanding issues. The cease-fire will continue to hold and no one from us is willing to go back to war," Kiir told reporters after Tuesday's meeting.

The opposition and government have blamed each other for not meeting milestones the two sides agreed to in last year's peace deal. These include the integration of rebel forces into the national army and agreement on the number of states in the eight-year-old nation.

Machar conceded at a joint news conference with Kiir that the two did not reach a compromise on the number of states.

"We have talked about the number of states and boundaries but we didn't reach a deal," he said.

U.S. sanctions

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two top South Sudanese officials on Monday for their role in "perpetuating the conflict."

The U.S. sanctioned Defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk and Cabinet Affairs Minister Martin Elia Lomoro for "sabotaging the South Sudan peace process."

South Sudan Information Minister and government spokesman Michael Makuei said the U.S. wants to weaken the Kiir administration.

"They don't want the current system to continue, so their policy is to weaken it by any possible means so that the opposition takes over," Makuei told VOA's South Sudan in Focus program.

Lack of trust between the two leaders has been a major factor in delaying formation of the unity government.

Carol Van Dam Falk contributed to this report.