ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The chief mediator at South Sudan’s peace talks in Ethiopia told the warring factions on Monday to stop stalling with procedural issues and said neither side could win on the battle field.
Ethiopian Seyoum Mesfin, representing the regional group IGAD, was voicing the growing frustration of international and regional diplomats at the failure of both sides to end the fighting. Their conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and driven the nation of 11 million closer to famine.
“If you are committed to peace, you will not find it through the barrel of the gun, but around this table,” Seyoum said in a speech in the northern Ethiopian city of Bahir Dar, where both sides gathered for the latest round of negotiations.
More than 1 million have fled their homes since December in South Sudan, the world’s newest state, when fighting erupted between troops backing President Salva Kiir and soldiers loyal to his sacked deputy, Riek Machar.
IGAD’s bid to ramp up the pressure on both sides came amid fresh fighting in South Sudan’s oil-producing Upper Nile state, in the latest violation of ceasefires deals signed earlier this year.
On Monday, both sides claimed gains against the other after clashes broke out late last week in the Renk and Majok areas.
“SPLA (government troops) are in full control of Renk and Majok”, spokesman Philip Aguer told a news conference in Juba, adding that 164 rebel fighters were killed.
Lul Ruai Koang, a rebel spokesman, disputed that account.
“These are his own imaginary figures,” Ruai said of the government’s claims. “In all the clashes, 280 government forces have been killed in the 11 locations in Upper Nile that have been affected.”
At the talks, a proposed deal presented by the mediators would see a transitional government with a new post of prime minister, with powers to be determined, to run the nation for 30 months, with elections held two months before the end.
Rebels have balked at one element that would allow the president, expected to be Kiir, to run for office again while the prime minister, who could be Machar, would be barred.
Diplomats said there was discussion of Kiir offering an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” not to run again. But some diplomats said that, given a history of distrust between the two, any commitment by Kiir would have to be clearly signed.
Earlier this month, U.S. State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon said the talks - aimed at including political leaders and broader society - were “being blocked to a certain extent by both leaders”.
He noted Kiir had showed up for talks but Machar “walked out” and risked losing any legitimacy he claimed.
“It is our hope that, along with the members of IGAD, that we are going to be able to send a clear message to both leaders that the international community will require them to come to terms, and allow the South Sudanese people to enjoy the benefits of their independence,” he said in Nairobi.
He did not say if he would press African states to deliver on a threat of sanctions if the two sides failed to agree, but added: “We think sanctions are a useful tool and that they send a very clear political message.”
The United States and European Union have already imposed sanctions on commanders from both sides.
Despite grievances over the IGAD proposal, a rebel official told Reuters his delegation will not boycott the talks.
Additional reporting by Denis Dumo in Juba; Editing by Duncan Miriri, Larry King