JUBA // Fighting persisted in parts of South Sudan’s oil-producing region as African leaders on Thursday tried to advance peace talks between the country’s president and the political rivals he accuses of attempting a coup that the government insists sparked violence threatening to destroy the world’s newest country.
The Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and the Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, met with the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, on Thursday.
A senior government official warned that Riek Machar, the former vice president who now allegedly commands renegade forces in the states of Unity and Upper Nile, had to renounce rebellion before the government could negotiate with him.
The South Sudanese information minister, Michael Makuei Leuth, said the government has not yet established formal contact with Mr Machar.
“For us, we are not talking with him,” Mr Leuth said, referring to Mr Machar, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
It was not possible to reach Mr Machar, as his known phone numbers were switched off.
Government troops are trying to retake control of Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity state, from forces loyal to Mr Machar. There was also reported fighting in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, according to Lueth.
Upper Nile and Unity comprise the country’s key oil-producing region, raising fears unrest there could cut off the country’s economic lifeblood.
Colonel Philip Aguer, the military spokesman, said government troops were “preparing to retake Bentiu as soon as possible” and that pro-Machar forces controlled only “half” of Malakal. He provided no details.
World leaders have urged an end to the violence in which thousands are feared killed. The United States, Norway and Ethiopia are leading efforts to open peace talks between Mr Kiir and his political rivals. Mr Kiir has said he is willing to hold “dialogue” with all his opponents.
The United Nations is investigating reports of mass killings since violence began spreading across South Sudan after a fight among the presidential guards on December 15, pitting soldiers from Mr Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group against those from the Nuer ethnic group of Mr Machar.
South Sudan’s top UN humanitarian official, Toby Lanzer, said on Monday that he believes the death toll has surpassed 1,000.
South Sudan gets nearly 99 per cent of its government budget from oil revenues.
“We are moving toward them and we will flush them out like we did in Bor,” Mr Leuth said, referring to the capital of Jonglei state that government troops retook from renegade forces earlier in the week.
* Associated Press