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South Sudan rivals launch ceasefire talks

The ceremonial opening to the talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa began with a hug between the opposing delegations

Published: Updated:

Two warring factions from South Sudan held direct peace talks on Sunday for the first time since conflict began roiling the country last month, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing for safety.

The direct talks, focused on a ceasefire and the release of political prisoners, put representatives of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar together in Ethiopia.

The ceremonial opening to the talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa began with a hug between the opposing delegations.

Despite the show of affection, a faltering start to the negotiations dampened hopes for a swift end to the violence and hopes for a ceasefire are now pinned on Sunday’s talks.

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced support for direct South Sudanese peace talks and cautioned against any use of force to try to gain the upper hand.

“The United States will support those who seek peace but we will deny support and we will work to apply international pressure to any elements (who) seek to use force (to gain advantage),” Kerry told reporters during a visit to Israel.

Since the conflict erupted on Dec. 15, thousands of people are feared to have been killed in the fighting, 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.

In South Sudan Saturday the army battled to wrest back from rebels the strategic town of Bor, capital of Jonglei, one of the country’s largest states.

There were reports of intense battles involving tanks and artillery on the outskirts of Bor, which has already exchanged hands three times since fighting began almost three weeks ago.

IGAD, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, whose members include the talks host Ethiopia as well as Kenya and Uganda - all strong backers of Kiir’s government - played key roles in pushing forward the 2005 deal that ended Sudan’s two-decade-long civil war.