South Sudan’s capital was echoing with heavy gunfire on Saturday evening, as peace talks in Ethiopia officially opened
(The Telegraph) Peace talks aimed to bring about an end to the conflict in South Sudan officially opened in Ethiopia on Saturday, yet were immediately marred by the sound of heavy gunfire in the capital.
Juba’s southern districts were ringing with gunfire, an AFP correspondent said – ending days of relative calm in the city despite the raging three-week long conflict in the rest of the troubled country.
Explosions from reported artillery fire as well as the constant rattle of automatic weapons were heard in Juba’s key government district – where most ministries, the presidential palace and the parliament are located.
But it was not clear whether the gunfire marked the beginning of an assault on the capital.
Edward Luka, a doctor based in Juba, said on Twitter: “I am in Gudele. The gunshots coming from Giyada side and national security office on Jebel. Not an attack from outside.”
He added: “There was gunfire, but it has now become quiet again.”
The US embassy in South Sudan ordered a further scaling back of staff on Friday because of the “deteriorating security situation”, although Washington – a key backer of the fledgling state – insisted it remains committed to ending the violence.
Uganda has deployed troops inside South Sudan to evacuate its citizens and bolster support for the embattled president, Salva Kiir.
On Friday Riek Machar, leader of the rebels, told The Telegraph that his side would not attack Juba.
“I’m being restrained by the international community and the talks, which I hope will yield some fruits,” he said.
“We are making our defences so that we protect the areas we control.”
He added: “I hope that Salva Kiir stops pushing to retake the areas that are under our control so that we can have talks.”
Mr Machar refused on Friday to say how close his forces were to Juba. On Tuesday they had captured Bor, 120 miles north and the capital of Jonglei state.
Philip Aguer, South Sudan’s military spokesman, said on Friday that the rebels were about 60 miles from Juba, but promised that they would be “defeated any time now”.
Yet on Saturday the peace talks in Addis Ababa were officially opened, amid dwindling hopes of a ceasefire to end raging fighting and prevent a slide into all-out civil war.
While top leaders of the government and rebel teams had met briefly, the rivals negotiating teams were up until Saturday holding separate talks with negotiators – causing frustration at the delayed start.
They plan finally to meet face-to-face on Sunday.
No timeline has been set for the crucial discussions, and irritation was growing that the teams had spent three days in the same luxury hotel in Addis Ababa without sitting down to talk.
Since the conflict erupted on December 15, thousands of people are feared to have been killed in the fighting, pitting army units loyal to Mr Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by his rival, former vice president Mr Machar.
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