* Kerry wants Machar and Kiir to talk face to face
* Bentiu scene of ethnic massacre last month
* Both sides to contemplate "month of tranquillity"
(Recasts with Kerry's comments, progress in peace talks)
By Andrew Green and Phil Stewart
JUBA/LUANDA, May 5 U.S. Secretary of State John
Kerry threatened sanctions against South Sudan rebel leader Riek
Machar on Monday if he spurned peace negotiations, as government
forces battled for control of the northern oil town of Bentiu.
Kerry flew to South Sudan on Friday to revive talks that
have made scant progress in months. He secured a commitment from
President Salva Kiir to fly to Ethiopia for face-to-face talks
with Machar, who held off from promising to take part.
In a rare sign of progress in talks dogged by deep mutual
mistrust, government and rebel negotiators in Ethiopia's capital
said they had agreed to consider a "month of tranquillity", to
start on Monday, and recommitted themselves to opening aid
Machar told the Sudan Tribune on Saturday he thought a
face-to-face meeting with Kiir could be "counter-productive".
But Kerry, who said he had read the interview, noted that Machar
had not ruled out meeting his rival.
"He has a fundamental decision to make. If he decides not to
and procrastinates, then we have a number of different options
that are available to us," Kerry told reporters in Angola on the
last stop of a nearly week-long trip to Africa.
The conflict erupted in mid-December after long political
rivalry between Kiir and Machar, whom Kiir sacked as his deputy
in July. The unrest has exacerbated tensions between their
ethnic groups - Kiir's Dinka people and Machar's Nuer.
On Monday, the army and rebels both claimed control of
Bentiu after two days of heavy fighting in the town, scene of an
ethnic massacre last month which heightened fears of genocide in
the world's newest nation.
"MONTH OF TRANQUILLITY"
Government forces overran fighters loyal to Machar on Sunday
but the rebels launched a counter-offensive early on Monday. A
military spokesman said the army had fended off the attack, but
rebels said they had driven SPLA soldiers out of the town.
"There will be fighting around Bentiu. The SPLA is trying to
establish full control over Unity state and that will take some
time," SPLA spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer told Reuters before
negotiators agreed to consider a month of tranquillity.
Under the terms of the deal signed in Addis Ababa, the two
sides would consider beginning such a truce on Monday, to allow
civilians to move to places of safety and plant crops.
It was not clear when precisely a truce might come into
effect, or when the sides might finalise agreement on it.
South Sudan's outgoing army chief General James Hoth Mai
accused neighbour and old foe Sudan on Monday of arming the
rebels fighting his troops - an allegation quickly dismissed by
Thousands of people have been killed and more than a million
forced from their homes since the violence erupted four months
ago, prompting the United Nations to warn of a possible famine
in parts of the country, which is about the size of France or
Peace talks brokered by the regional IGAD grouping have gone
nowhere since a January ceasefire deal which never took hold.
"We would have wished to sign today the entire agreement
recommitting the parties to observing the whole cessation of
hostilities agreement," said Nhial Deng Nhial, head of the South
Sudan government delegation in Ethiopia.
Taban Deng Gai, his counterpart from the rebel camp, said
the accord was encouraging.
Kerry's visit to Juba, his first as Washington's most senior
diplomat, was part of a renewed diplomatic push to end a
conflict increasingly being fought along ethnic lines.
Fears of a descent into genocide grew after the United
Nations said rebels had massacred hundreds of civilians in
Bentiu last month. Days later, residents of Bor, a predominantly
Dinka town, attacked Nuer camped in a U.N. base.
Oil output, South Sudan's economic lifeline, has been cut by
a third to about 160,000 barrels per day since fighting began.
Oil firms operating in South Sudan include China National
Petroleum Corp, India's ONGC Videsh and
(Additional reporting by Shrikesh Laxmidas in Launda and Aaron
Maasho in Addis Ababa; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by
Edmund Blair and Andrew Roche)