South Sudan Peace Talks Start as Two Sides Say Deal Possible

Jan 07, 2014 12:54 am ET

(Updates with fighting in Bor in eighth paragraph.)

Jan. 7 (Bloomberg) -- South Sudan’s government and rebels said they were optimistic they could negotiate an end to a three-week-old conflict that the United Nations says has killed thousands of people and forced 200,000 to flee their homes.

Talks resume today in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to end the violence that has shaken the world’s newest nation. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said yesterday he was “ready to directly engage” the warring parties to end fighting between President Salva Kiir’s government and insurgents loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar.

“We believe we can achieve full reconciliation,” the rebels’ chief negotiator, Taban Deng Gai, said at a press conference in Addis Ababa. South Sudanese Information Minister Michael Makuei said: “We have come for peace and we will go back to our people with peace.”

Conflict broke out on Dec. 15 after Kiir accused Machar of trying to stage a coup, a charge Machar denies. The violence has pitted members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community against Machar’s Nuer group. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011 following a two-decade civil war with the north.

Landlocked South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data. It has been exporting all of its crude -- about 245,000 barrels a day -- through pipelines across Sudan. The fighting has cut output to about 200,000 barrels daily. Oil exports provide more than 95 percent of government revenue.

Chinese Companies

Some oil companies including China National Petroleum Corp. and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. have temporarily evacuated employees from South Sudan.

Sudan has agreed to send 900 technicians to southern oil fields and “there are intentions” to deploy Sudanese and South Sudanese forces to protect “all oil and border areas,” Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti said yesterday in Khartoum after returning from a visit to South Sudan with Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir.

In the “past few days” there’s been “heavy fighting” south of Bor, capital of Jonglei state, where the UN Mission in South Sudan is protecting 9,000 civilians in its compound, said Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in an e-mailed statement yesterday. The UN urged the government and rebels to allow required supply flights into the area.

The negotiations in Addis Ababa will discuss an end to the fighting and the fate of politicians imprisoned by the government following the outbreak of fighting, Ethiopian envoy Seyoum Mesfin said at the press conference. The two sides agreed on a framework for the talks yesterday, he said.

Grave Situation

Efforts to mediate a truce are being led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a group of East African nations that has seven active members including Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan. The group said late yesterday that the two sides have shown appreciation of “the gravity of the situation and the need and urgency of resolving the crisis.”

The South Sudanese government said Jan. 5 it rejected international pressure to release politicians detained after the alleged attempted coup.

The U.S. and the European Union said Jan. 4 that 11 politicians imprisoned in South Sudan should be freed to help the warring parties reach a cease-fire and a political solution.

Those detained without charge include Pagan Amum, former secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Kiir fired his cabinet in July, including Machar, who said he planned to seek the leadership of the ruling party. Machar was one of the leaders of a faction that split from other southern rebels during decades of civil war with the government in Khartoum.

During his visit to Juba, Sudanese leader al-Bashir called for the restoration of peace. The authorities in Khartoum won’t support rebel groups in the south, he said.

The UN has urged both sides to avoid civilian casualties, and called on donors to help aid agencies raise $166 million for humanitarian programs. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Jerusalem on Jan. 5 that the start of direct talks was a “very important step” and urged officials to approach them with “resolve.”

--With assistance from Ahmed Feteha in Khartoum. Editors: Karl Maier, Ben Holland