ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Delegations from South Sudan's warring factions are expected to meet for the first time Thursday for peace talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, even as fighting continues in some parts of South Sudan.
An Associated Press reporter witnessed the arrival early Thursday of former Vice President Riek Machar's representatives at Addis Ababa's Sheraton Hotel, where both sides were to hold direct talks. Some Western diplomats were also present as mediators waited for the arrival of the South Sudan government's delegation.
Ethiopia is playing a leading role in trying to get the two sides to negotiate a peace deal. But those efforts have been overshadowed by persistent violence in South Sudan since mid-December.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in Unity and Jonglei, two states where rebels loyal to Machar control the capitals.
Under a regional bloc known as IGAD, East African countries have urged Machar and Kiir to negotiate an end to violence that raised fears of civil war in the world's newest country. The United Nations and the African Union have said they support IGAD's efforts to broker peace in South Sudan.
The fighting in South Sudan has exposed ethnic rivalry between the country's two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka of Kiir and the Nuer of Machar. The U.N. says there is mounting evidence that people were targeted for their ethnicity. More than 1,000 people have been killed and nearly 200,000 displaced by violence.
Kiir insists the fighting was sparked by a coup attempt mounted by soldiers loyal to Machar on Dec.15 in the capital, Juba. But that account has been disputed by some officials of the ruling party, who say the violence began when presidential guards from the Dinka group tried to disarm their Nuer colleagues. From there, violence spread across the country, with forces loyal to Machar defecting and seizing territory from loyalist forces.
South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension and a power struggle within the ruling party that escalated after Kiir dismissed Machar as his vice president in July. Machar has criticized Kiir as a dictator and says he will contest the 2015 presidential election.
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal. Before that, the south fought decades of war with Sudan.