African mediators hold talks
on South Sudan conflict

First peace initiative since conflict began comes after UN reported deaths of two peacekeepers and US deployed troops

Frightened Sudanese, mostly women and children, arrive at a U.N. complex in Juba on Wednesday, seeking refuge.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

A day after two United Nations peacekeepers were killed in South Sudan, mediators say they have held productive talks with South Sudan's President Salva Kiir as they seek to defuse an almost week-long conflict that is deepening ethnic divisions. It is the first peace initiative since clashes erupted.

Kiir has said he is ready for dialogue. Former Vice President Riek Machar told French radio that he was ready to "negotiate his departure from power" and said the army could force Kiir out if he did not quit.

"We had a very productive meeting with his excellency President Salva Kiir and we will continue consultations," said Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom, who is leading the African delegation, before returning to talks.

The team included ministers from Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti and Somali, and African Union and United Nations representatives.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to meet on Friday to discuss South Sudan and to hear a briefing from deputy peacekeeping chief Edmond Mulet.

Late on Thursday, President Barack Obama issued a statement calling for an "immediate" end to the violence.

"Fighting to settle political scores or to destabilize the government must stop immediately," he said. "Inflammatory rhetoric and targeted violence must cease. All sides must listen to the wise counsel of their neighbors, commit to dialogue and take immediate steps to urge calm and support reconciliation."

Obama also said Thursday that he had deployed 45 American military personnel to South Sudan to protect the U.S. embassy and Americans in the country.

The United Nations said on Thursday a crowd of Nuer tribesmen breached a U.N. compound in Jonglei State north of the capital and had reports that some locals sheltering there were killed. It also said two Indian peacekeepers died.

The incident marks the latest development in a conflict that has deepened ethnic divisions and claimed as many as 500 lives, according to local reports received by the U.N.

"Our base in Akobo, Jonglei State, was attacked and we have reports that lives are lost," deputy U.N. Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters Thursday.

The U.N. later confirmed the deaths of two Indian peackeepers in a statement Friday condemning the violence and calling for calm amid the rising turmoil.

"This morning, the UN Mission in South Sudan conducted an aerial assessment to Akobo Town. We can confirm that two UNMISS Indian Battalion troops were killed in action. UNMISS can also confirm that one injured Indian soldier has been transported to the Mission's medical facility in Malakal." 

U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the situation — following an alleged coup attempt mounted by armed fighters loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar on Sunday — had deteriorated, raising fears of widespread instability in the world’s newest country.

Tensions have been mounting in South Sudan since Kiir, who comes from the majority Dinka tribe, fired Machar, who stems from the Nuer tribe, in July, sparking concerns about possible tribal clashes.

"The U.N. Mission in South Sudan will try to extract unarmed U.N. personnel from Akobo while reinforcing the base in Akobo with additional 60 troops from Malakal tomorrow," Haq said.

Some 20,000 people, most of them women and children seeking to escape the violence, were camped at U.N. offices in nearby Juba, and another 10,000 people uprooted from their homes were hiding at U.N. premises in Bor, said U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay.

Pillay said the possibility of clashes taking on an ethnic dimension was “extremely high and could result in a dangerous situation.”

Armed fighters loyal to Machar, who is now on the run, continued to battle government forces following their alleged coup attempt — which Macher denies. They seized the town of Bor, the capital of Jonglei, late Wednesday.

The conflict has alarmed South Sudan's neighbors and the international community. The U.S. and U.K. have begun evacuating their citizens to safety.

South Sudan's foreign minister and other officials have sought to play down the role of ethnic rifts, blaming political differences. But since fighting moved beyond the capital, clashes have been increasingly driven by ethnic loyalties.

"So we have a military coup in our hands which is causing a lot of instability in the country and is being played up in certain areas as if it is a racial ethnic war, which is not the case," said Barnaba Marial Benjamin, South Sudan's foreign minister.

"We don't want to encourage what happened in Rwanda," he said, referring to the 1994 genocide there. 

Fighting has spread to vital oil areas. Soldiers from the rival factions clashed at a barracks near the town of Bentiu, capital of the oil producing Unity State.

South Sudanese officials have said till now that oil production, which had stood at about 245,000 barrels per day and provides most of South Sudan's revenues, have not been affected.

A source in Sudan, which hosts the sole export pipeline, said on Friday there had been no disruption.

However, the China National Petroleum Corp. said it was flying 32 workers out of an oil field, according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.


Al Jazeera and wire services

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