South Sudan ceasefire talks abruptly delayed

The delay sets back efforts to curb weeks of violence during which thousands are feared to have been killed

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Face-to-face talks between warring parties in South Sudan have been delayed, government and rebel delegations said Saturday, dashing hopes of a swift ceasefire to curb weeks of deadly violence.

South Sudan Information Minister Michael Makuei, part of the delegation to the talks in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, as well as rebel team spokesman Yohanis Musa Pouk, said the two sides would not meet Saturday pending the drafting of an agenda to be agreed by both sides.

Neither party confirmed when a final agenda could be expected.

Thousands of people are feared to have been killed in the fighting, since it erupted on Dec.15 pitting army units loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by his rival former vice president Riek Machar.

U.S. special envoy to South Sudan, Donald Booth, is also in the Ethiopian capital working to end the bloodshed.

He was urging the two sides “to reach an immediate cessation of hostilities, allow full and unfettered humanitarian access, and outline tangible steps toward resolving their differences peacefully that can be implemented immediately,” a U.S. official told Agence France-Presse.

“Dialogue is critical to resolving the political crisis at the core of this conflict, and in reconciling the nation.”

On Friday, the United States vowed that it remained committed to ending the violence in South Sudan, despite evacuating most of its remaining staff from the embassy in Juba.

“Even as we draw down our personnel, we continue to be engaged in and strongly support regional and international efforts to bring the violence to an end,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

She said that “due to the deteriorating security situation and out of an abundance of caution, the Department of State ordered the departure of most remaining U.S. government personnel from South Sudan.”

The Pentagon sent two KC-130 aircraft earlier Friday from Uganda to South Sudan to “evacuate approximately 20 personnel” from the U.S. embassy in Juba, spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told reporters.