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S Sudan govt says poised to retake key town

07 January 2014, 19:00

Juba - South Sudan's government said Tuesday that it was poised to recapture a key town from rebel forces, as peace talks being held in neighbouring Ethiopia appeared to be making slow progress.

The claim came amid renewed warnings of a fast deteriorating humanitarian situation, with the aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warning that people displaced by the conflict were at risk of epidemics.

"It's a matter of hours that the SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army) will announce the capture of Bor," a government official told AFP, amid reports that government reinforcements were being poured into the battle near Bor, a state capital situated 200km north of Juba.

Rebel spokesperson Moses Ruai Lat, however, dismissed the claim as "lies": "They are making propaganda. In Jonglei State, we have no problem in the areas we control," he asserted.

Delegates from both side meanwhile held a second day of formal talks at a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa, although a brief morning session was adjourned with members of the government delegation heading back to Juba for "consultations" with President Salva Kiir.

"This morning at nine we met," South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makuei told AFP, adding that the topics raised were a "cessation of hostilities" and "the question of detainees" loyal to Kiir's rival Riek Machar, a former vice president and nominal rebel leader.

The talks, brokered by the East African regional bloc IGAD, are aimed at ending more than three weeks of fighting in the world's newest nation. The conflict has left thousands dead, according to UN officials, while more than 200 000 people have been displaced or have fled the country.

The fighting began on December 15 as a clash between army units loyal to President Kiir and those loyal to Machar, and has escalated into all-out war between government troops and a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders.

A key sticking point has been rebel and international demands that the South Sudanese government release 11 officials close to Machar so they can participate in the talks.

Civilians 'vulnerable'

The push for peace was given a boost on Monday, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi - whose country is the biggest buyer of South Sudan's oil - pushing for peace and offering to personally mediate between the two sides.

Sudan meanwhile said that it and South Sudan had agreed during a visit to Juba by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to consider setting up a joint force to protect vital oilfields, many of which are now in rebel hands. The move was seen by many observers as an effort to force the rebels to a compromise.

Secretary of State John Kerry of the United States, which was instrumental in helping South Sudan win independence, has also urged the rival factions not to use the Addis Ababa talks to buy time.

On the ground, the humanitarian situation is dire, with tens of thousands forced from their homes. The UN says its badly overstretched peacekeeping force is sheltering 57 000 people, many of whom have fled an wave of ethnic violence pitting Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer.

Atrocities have been committed by both sides, and the UN has said it will investigate crimes against humanity thought to have been committed over the past three weeks.

Aid group MSF said those displaced were facing disaster.

"Highly vulnerable people have just become even more vulnerable," said Raphael Gorgeu, MSF's head of mission in South Sudan. "We don't know what will happen to the thousands of displaced and wounded people across the country."

Even before the fighting broke out, 80% of healthcare and basic services in South Sudan were provided by non-governmental organisations, MSF said.

"Today, there is a high risk of epidemics, and if the fighting prevents us from gaining rapid and safe access to people in need, especially to pregnant women and children, conditions will quickly deteriorate," Gorgeu added.



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