South Sudan Peace Talks Off to an Uncertain Start

Peace talks aimed at ending the violence in South Sudan formally opened in Ethipoia’s capital Addis Ababa yesterday.  Despite assurances from President Salva Kiir and former Vice President and defacto rebel leader Riek Machar that they support the peace process, significant issues remain in simply getting talks started.  The talks, organized by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional economic organization in East Africa, were originally scheduled to open on Saturday following preliminary meetings on Friday.  A lack of a clear agenda delayed the formal opening of the talks by a day.

Map of South Sudan from the United Nations, dated October 2011.  The capital, Juba, as well as the cities of Akobo and Bor have been highlighted.

Map of South Sudan from the United Nations, dated October 2011. The capital, Juba, as well as the cities of Akobo and Bor have been highlighted.

Now additional protocol issues have threatened to stall the talks or worse.  Machar, who has denied the existence of a coup plot, which was the inciting incident for the violence, has said he believes there are issues that need to be resolved before even a ceasefire can come into effect.  Chief among his delegations’ demands are the release of political allies arrested in the wake of the reported coup attempt.  The South Sudanese government delegation is of the opinion that there should be no preconditions to begin negotiations.  Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir is also expected to travel to South Sudan to meet with President Kiir about the crisis.  It is unclear what such a visit might necessarily offer either side in the current conflict, but it is known that Machar had for a period sided with the Sudanese government.

In the meantime, violence in the country continues, with the government and rebel forces fighting for control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state.  A general of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the South Sudanese Army, was reported to have been killed outside of Bor after his convoy was ambushed.  Gunfire was also reported in the capital, Juba. There have been fears that rebels are planning an attack to take the capital and that delays in peace talks might be an attempt to wait to see if the situation on the ground changes dramatically in favor of the rebels.

The United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) has received authorization to increase its overall size and has been working to deploy existing forces to affected areas.  The UN has tapped the mission in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), to help provide logistical support for operations in South Sudan.  The UN believes that some two hundred thousand people have been displaced by fighting, with tens of thousands having sought shelter in UNMISS facilities.  It is unclear how many have died in the violence.  The US, which, along with others, has been working to evacuate foreign civilians, recently announced that it was further scaling back its diplomatic mission in the country.  US forces have been deployed to the country to provide security for diplomatic facilities and help in evacuation efforts.

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