ADDIS ABABA - South Sudan took a small step toward implementing an oft-violated two-month-old peace deal Monday as Riek Machar's armed opposition group signed an agreement on security arrangements during a transitional period.
A key provision of the security deal, which government negotiators signed last month, is the deployment of 5,000 government troops in Juba to guard military barracks, bases and warehouses, and 3,000 more to make up a joint integrated police force that will patrol the capital.
?Machar's SPLM-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) refused to sign the agreement last month at a security workshop in Addis Ababa, arguing that deploying several thousand troops in the South Sudanese capital would negate a clause in the peace agreement that calls for the city to be demilitarized.
A spokesman for the SPLM-IO, William Dag, said the opposition wants the military facilities' guard to be made up of equal numbers of SPLA and opposition troops.
Dag said the opposition also has reservations about the number and make-up of the presidential guard, and two battalions that were created by the IGAD-Plus peace deal, which Machar signed on Aug. 17 and President Salva Kiir nine days later.
Security talks to continue
The chief mediator for IGAD at the long-running South Sudan peace talks, Seyoum Mesfin, said the two sides in the conflict will continue to discuss security arrangements until they have ironed out their differences.?
He said there are still many details to hammer out, but he is optimistic that the two sides will eventually reach consensus.
South Sudan’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Bashir Bandi said the government will try to erase the opposition's reservations with the security arrangements as the talks continue.
He said most of the reservations were "technical issues, which will be addressed by our technical teams in the security sector. The agreement is very clear but, we are flexible. We will discuss and see how we can address their concerns and see how we can really build confidence between the parties."
'Most critical' phase in peace negotiations
The security arrangements are seen by IGAD and its international partners as a key provision of the peace deal signed in August.
U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, has said that agreeing to transitional security arrangements for South Sudan is "a necessary first step" toward implementing the peace deal and putting an end to the suffering of the South Sudanese people.
IGAD has called the security workshops one the "most critical phase of negotiations," noting that if the two sides cannot agree on security arrangements and demilitarization of towns that have been flashpoints in South Sudan’s conflict, bringing lasting peace to the country will be difficult, if not impossible.
Tens of thousands have died and millions have been forced from their homes since South Sudan plunged into conflict in December 2013.
In spite of a ceasefire that was declared at the end of August, fighting is still ongoing in parts of the country. Because of the continuing violence, millions of South Sudanese are severely food insecure and tens of thousands are at risk of starving to death, the United Nations has warned.