ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - South Sudanese President Salva Kiir arrived in Ethiopia’s capital on Friday to meet rebel leader Riek Machar under growing international pressure for an end to ethnic fighting that has raised fears of genocide.
The talks in Addis Ababa will be the first since the outset of a nearly five-month conflict during which both government forces and rebels have committed crimes against humanity, according to the United Nations.
Cranking up pressure on two leaders who have been embroiled in a long power struggle, the European Union threatened sanctions against anyone blocking peacemaking and a deal on reforms to tackle endemic poverty and disorder.
The United States earlier this week slapped sanctions on two commanders on opposing sides of the conflict, a sign of the United States’ growing frustration with leaders in Africa’s youngest country that Washington helped win its independence.
Western diplomats say negotiating an end to the fighting is a priority. The Juba government announced on Wednesday it had ordered the army to suspend attacks on rebels under the terms of an agreed “month of tranquility.”
But a rebel spokesman said there could be no talk of a proper ceasefire until a deal laying out the path towards an interim government was agreed.
“The government has been speaking about a ceasefire. But you cannot have a ceasefire without a solution firmly in place,” Hussein Mar Nyot, a spokesman for Machar’s delegation, told Reuters in Addis Ababa.
“A roadmap must be agreed upon at this meeting.”
The meeting between Kiir and Machar was to be held later on Friday at Ethiopia’s presidential palace.
Fighting erupted in South Sudan’s capital Juba in mid-December between soldiers loyal to Kiir and those backing Machar and quickly spread across the country, often pitting Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community against Machar’s Nuer.
A ceasefire signed by both camps in January never took hold and South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011, has since lost a third of its economically vital oil output.
Thousands of people have been killed and about a million displaced. Forces on both sides have committed murder, rape and other sexual abuses, according to a 62-page U.N. report.
A member of the South Sudanese government delegation confirmed Kiir’s arrival in Addis Ababa on Friday, a day after Machar, who he sacked as his deputy in July.
Delegates of both camps and diplomats milled around Addis Ababa’s luxurious Sheraton Hotel on Friday, where fitful talks have been taking place, while tens of thousands of South Sudanese have sought refuge in U.N. bases across Ethiopia.
Among those present was Pagan Amum, former secretary general of South Sudan’s ruling SPLM party, and three other senior political figures previously accused by Kiir’s government of plotting a coup.
Machar warmly embraced the four, whose treason charges were dropped last month. Amum said he also hoped to meet Kiir later.
“Our people and nation are being divided by this war,” Amum told reporters. “It is a war that has no winners.”
One Western diplomat said there was a push for the peace process to include Amum and other former political prisoners, the church and local civil society groups.
“You can’t leave it to warring guys because then it’s basically about who gets what part of the cake,” said the Juba-based Western diplomat. “These (talks) are a fundamental review of where the country is going and on what basis.”
Additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Juba; Writing by Richard Lough, James Macharia; Editing by Mark Heinrich