Sudan President Omar al-Bashir arrived in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, on Monday for a day of talks on the country’s three-week-old unrest, as mediators said peace negotiations would be under way in neighbouring Ethiopia.
Bashir was greeted at Juba airport by South Sudan’s Vice-President James Wani Igga, before heading to the presidential palace for talks with his counterpart President Salva Kiir.
Bashir made no public comment, although Khartoum has reaffirmed Sudan’s support for “a peaceful resolution to the conflict”, which has already left thousands dead and close to 200,000 displaced.
In Ethiopia, formal peace talks between South Sudan’s government and rebels were set to open on Monday in the capital of Addis Ababa, delegates and diplomats said.
The talks, brokered by the East African regional bloc IGAD and aimed at ending three weeks of unrest in South Sudan, are set to start at 3pm local time, Ethiopian government spokesman Getachew Reda said.
Delegates from both sides confirmed the schedule had been fixed after days of wrangling over protocol and other disagreements.
“I am optimistic. Our delegation is going in with an open mind,” rebel delegate Mabior Garang said. However he added that the rebels were “suspicious of the sincerity of the government”.
“They keep shifting the goalposts and are adamant on not releasing detainees, but we should first get to the table and discuss a cessation of hostilities,” he added.
Government delegation spokesman Michael Makuei confirmed the planned start time but made no further comment.
A key sticking point has been rebel and international demands that the South Sudanese government release 11 officials close to rebel leader Riek Machar so they can participate in the talks, aimed at putting in place a truce as well as ceasefire-monitoring mechanisms.
The conflict in South Sudan erupted on December 15, pitting army units loyal to Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by Machar, a former vice-president who was sacked last July.
Machar denies allegations that he started the conflict by attempting a coup, and in turn accuses the president of orchestrating a violent purge.
South Sudan won independence from Khartoum in 2011 after decades of war, but Sudan remains a key player in the young nation’s affairs, serving as the export route for the South’s oil production.
The visit comes as fighting in South Sudan showed no sign of easing, with the capital experiencing more sporadic gunfire overnight and government forces saying they were massing to recapture several rebel-held towns.
Heavy fighting was reported over the weekend in oil-producing Unity and Upper Nile states in the north, as well as near rebel-held Bor, capital of Jonglei State just north of the capital.
Army spokesman Philip Aguer said it was only a “matter of time” before Bor was recaptured, although rebel spokesman Moses Ruai insisted that it was anti-government fighters who were advancing on the capital.
“Our forces are well-organised. They are not just hit and run. The next target is now Juba but I cannot tell you exactly when they will attack Juba, but they are heading there,” he said.
UN officials say they believe thousands of people have already been killed, and both sides are alleged to have committed atrocities. UN peacekeeping bases have also been overwhelmed with civilians seeking shelter, many of them fleeing ethnic violence between Kiir’s Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer tribe