ADDIS ABABA: East African heads of state met in Addis Ababa Thursday in the latest push for peace in war-torn South Sudan, where almost three months of raging conflict has left thousands dead.
Leaders from the East African bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), were hosted by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to “deliberate on the current situation” in the troubled fledgling nation, a statement read.
The one-day meeting comes as South Sudan’s army spokesman reported fresh clashes in the strategic oil city of Malakal, one of the hardest fought battlegrounds in the conflict, and which has switched hands several times.
“There has been fighting between our forces and the rebels in and around Malakal town for the last two days,” army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir was at the meeting, but no direct talks between his government and the rebels were due to take place until next week.
The two sides signed an IGAD-brokered ceasefire agreement on January 23, but heavy fighting has continued.
IGAD and the African Union will “work on how best to implement the cessation of hostilities” agreement, AU commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has sent in troops to back Kiir’s forces and fight rebel troops, was also present.
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, whose nation is heavily dependent on the oil from landlocked South Sudan which transits through Khartoum to the coast, was also at the meeting.
– Peace process ‘very slow’ –
Earlier this month, officials said that South Sudan’s oil production had been cut by almost a third since fighting broke out, with some of the heaviest fighting in oil producing areas.
South Sudan’s government has been at war with rebel groups since December 15, when a clash between troops loyal to Kiir and those loyal to sacked vice president Riek Machar snowballed into full-scale fighting across the world’s newest nation.
Somalia’s Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed said that “the IGAD summit is intended to tackle means of implementing previous agreements and the deployment of peacekeeping forces to South Sudan.”
Stalled peace talks in Ethiopia between rebels and the government, which have made little progress, are due to resume on March 20.
Ethiopia’s Hailemariam this week said the peace process was “going very slow, but it is going in the right direction.”
Over 930,000 civilians have fled their homes since fighting began, including over quarter of million leaving for neighbouring nations as refugees, according to the United Nations.
The meeting comes a day after the African Union opened a special commission of inquiry into atrocities, which at times has included brutal ethnic tit-for-tat killings.
Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who was sworn in as head of the five-member AU commission, vowed that “whoever is responsible must not get away with impunity.”
South Sudan this week opened the trial of four opposition leaders for treason for allegedly trying to topple Kiir, and ordered seven other leaders to return home to join them in the dock.
War crimes have been committed by all sides in the war, Human Rights Watch has warned, detailing widespread atrocities including widespread killing, rape and looting.
Over 75,000 civilians are still crammed into UN peacekeeping bases in fear of revenge attacks, with conditions becoming increasingly squalid as weeks drag into months and heavy rains start.