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African leaders pursue peace talks in South Sudan

| Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 9:09 p.m.

JUBA, South Sudan — African leaders tried on Thursday to advance peace talks between South Sudan's president and political rivals, whom he accuses of attempting a coup to topple the government of the world's newest country.

As fighting persisted in parts of South Sudan's oil-producing region, Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had “a constructive dialogue” with South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, according to Kiir's foreign minister.

Former Vice President Riek Machar, who leads renegade troops, was not represented at the talks. No political breakthrough emerged.

The next round of meetings will be in Kenya's capital of Nairobi, where regional leaders under a bloc known as IGAD will meet on Friday to discuss a report from the meeting, said South Sudan's Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin.

Kiir agreed “in principle” to stop hostilities and to negotiate with who is expected to be invited formally by IGAD to attend upcoming peace talks, Benjamin said.

Government troops are trying to retake control of Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, from forces loyal to Machar.

Fighting was reported in Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state. Upper Nile and Unity comprise the country's key oil-producing region, raising concerns that unrest there could cut off the economic lifeblood of the nation, which gets nearly its entire government budget from oil.

Citing more progress against rebels on the battlefield, South Sudan's minister of information said that national forces on Thursday regained “full control” of Malakal. Michael Makuei Lueth said “criminal elements” have been looting the town, but the army has it under control.

Military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said government troops are “preparing to retake Bentiu as soon as possible.”

The government said its forces retook Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, earlier this week. But Hilde Johnson, head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, said fighting continues in the city.

The fighting has stoked fears of a civil war in the country that peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011.

“The nation painstakingly built over decades of conflict and strife is at stake,” Johnson told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York by videoconference from Juba. “I therefore call on the political leaders of South Sudan to order their forces to lay down their arms and to give peace a chance, and to do so urgently.”

The United States, Norway and Ethiopia are leading efforts to open peace talks between Kiir and his political rivals. Kiir said in a Christmas address that he is willing to “dialogue” with all his opponents.

The United Nations is investigating reports of mass killings since violence began spreading after a Dec. 15 fight among the presidential guards that pitted soldiers from Kiir's Dinka ethnic group against those from the Nuer ethnic group of Machar.

“It's very important to underline this is a political struggle,” Johnson said, stressing that there is “multi-ethnic representation on both sides.”

The United Nations estimates “well over a thousand killed” in the 11 days of fighting, Johnson said.

Although the capital, Juba, is now calm, fighting appears to be expanding, stretching the limits of humanitarian workers and aid agencies. The U.N. humanitarian office said aid agencies need $166 million to save lives amid the continuing violence.

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