Rebels and a government delegation from South Sudan started peace talks on Tuesday to try to end fighting that has left the world's newest state on the brink of civil war.
The talks in neighboring Ethiopia will focus on brokering a ceasefire to halt three weeks of violence that has killed at least 1,000 people and driven 200,000 from their homes.The fighting, often along ethnic faultlines, has pitted President Salva Kiir's SPLA government forces against rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar.
"We have begun our meeting on the cessation of hostilities," a member of the government delegation told Reuters. After opening, the talks quickly took a break to allow consultations in Juba about the release of detained rebels.
Tuesday was the first face-to-face session, after a formal opening ceremony on Saturday, due to delays caused by haggling over the fate of 11 detainees held by the government in Juba. The rebels initially insisted on securing their release before negotiations started.
A diplomat said the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional grouping of east African nations that initiated the talks, had sent its envoys to Juba to press Kiir to free the detainees.
"They will push for the detainees' release," said the diplomat
Seyoum Mesfin, a former Ethiopian foreign minister, leads the trio of envoys, according to the diplomat.
"The talks are going on but we are here for consultations," Kenyan Lieutenant-General Lazarus Sumbeiywo, one of the three IGAD envoys, told Reuters on arrival in Juba.
The talks in Addis paused to await the return of the IGAD envoys, expected later on Tuesday, officials said.
In addition to remarks by the U.S. State Department over the weekend pushing for a quick resolution to the conflict, China, which has a big stake in oil in the country, is also increasingly intent on ending the violence.
China, which is the biggest investor in South Sudan's oil industry through its state-owned oil giants National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) and Sinopec, called for an immediate ceasefire on Monday. Beijing is concerned by the unrest that has forced the government to cut oil production by about a fifth. The fighting forced CNPC to evacuate workers.
Sudan, which also has an economic interest in its southern neighbor's oil output, said the Juba government discussed the deployment of a joint force to secure its oilfields during a visit by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Monday.
The prospect of security cooperation between the two countries would represent an improvement in ties, after the civil war foes came close to conflict again in disputes over oil fees and the border in the early part of 2012.
All of landlocked South Sudan's oil is piped through its northern neighbor, providing vital hard currency in transit fees for Khartoum.
South Sudan's oil production fell by 45,000 barrels per day to 200,000 after oilfields in its North were shut down due to fighting.
Oil company BP estimates that South Sudan holds sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest reserves.
Al Jazeera and Reuters