ADDIS ABABA - South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his rival in the country's six-month-old conflict, Riek Machar, have pledged at a summit of East African leaders in Addis Ababa to set up a transitional government within 60 days and to allow immediate, unhindered access to people in need.
"They agreed to complete the dialogue process within the coming 60 days on what, how, when and who... to the formation of a transitional government of national unity," Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said after regional leaders brokered the latest deal for South Sudan at a closed-door meeting in the Ethiopian capital.
Talks mediated by East African bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) will continue in the Ethiopian capital to hammer out details of the peace plan, which was signed just over a month after Mr. Kiir and Machar agreed in Addis to recommmit to a cessation of hostilities deal reached in January.
Several deals to end the fighting in South Sudan have been signed but none has been adhered to. As violence has ground on, the young country has fallen deeper and deeper into crisis, with more than a million people displaced from their homes, thousands feared dead, and aid agencies warning of potential famine.
“It is high time that the warring parties will hear the call of their people and the international communities to take the forthcoming political negotiation seriously and not to use it as a forum to advance partisan positions and delay the final outcome to the talks,” African Union Peace and Security Commissioner Ismail Chergui said after the latest meeting in Addis Ababa.
In a statement released after the hours-long summit, IGAD applauded Mr. Kiir and Machar for signing what the regional bloc called the "landmark agreement" of May 9, saying the deal "provided the basis for negotiating a transitional government of national unity and committed them to ensure the inclusion of a broader range of South Sudanese stakeholders in peace negotiations."
IGAD 'disappointed' in warring sides
But the regional bloc also expressed deep disappointment at the failure of the two sides in the conflict in South Sudan to "honor their commitments to date, to engage the peace process meaningfully toward political resolution of the crisis and to bring an end to senseless killings."
Particularly regrettable were the "continued and flagrant violations" of three cessation of hostilities agreements, IGAD said.
IGAD, which has acted as mediator at peace talks for South Sudan that have been ongoing since January, vowed to "take further collective action to pressure any party who fails to honor its commitments to date or the resolutions of this Communiqué, including through imposition of punitive measures."
Government, opposition say 'committed to peace'
A spokesman for Mr. Kiir, Ateny Wek Ateny, said the South Sudanese government was committed to implementing the just-signed agreement, but went on to reject the call for inclusive peace talks.
"The government committed itself to the 9th of May agreement. But, you know, within 60 days there are a number of things that are supposed to happen including signing a permanent ceasefire and going for a comprehensive peace agreement. So within two months, I think the government is ready to sign a peace agreement," Ateny said.
But, Ateny said, only the warring sides should be involved in peace talks "because it is not any stakeholder in South Sudan that is fighting," he said.
"On forming the transitional government, on a national dialogue constitutional conference, these are the things that you would want anybody to participate in, and the national dialogue constitutional conference is what the government would actually allow anyone to participate," he said.
Opposition spokesman Hussein Mar Nyuot said the opposition is "committed and ready to end the war and achieve peace."
"We are ever-ready. Not only 60 days, even one week, we could actually finish if the government is really committed now to achieving peace in South Sudan, " he said.
But Mar Nyuot said the government has rejected some proposals put forward by the opposition at the peace talks, including cross-sector reforms in the government, a discussion on federalizing the government, and new parameters for a permanent constitution.
"This is what holds back the signing of the political framework -- the government doesn't want a federal system, they don't want reforms... they're just talking of the current constitution of the country, that should be the constitution," he said.
The two sides, which since December have put forward different versions of how the unrest began -- the opposition says it was sparked by an internal row in the ruling SPLM party and the government insists that an attempted coup, led by Machar, triggered the unrest -- also blamed each other for coninuing to violate the ceasefire agreements.