China, the biggest investor in South Sudan's oil industry, has called for an immediate ceasefire in the world's newest state, as rebel and government negotiators haggled over the scope of peace talks meant to end three weeks of fighting.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Monday that Beijing was deeply concerned by the unrest in South Sudan that has killed more than a thousand people and forced the government to cut oil production by about a fifth.
"China's position with regard to the current situation in South Sudan is very clear," Wang said in Addis Ababa, where peace talks were taking place. "First, we call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and violence."
An Ethiopian delegate said Wang had met both rebel and government delegations.
Wang said he was "ready to directly engage" the warring parties to end fighting between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir's government and insurgents loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar that has split the nation along ethnic lines.
"We believe we can achieve full reconciliation," the rebels' chief negotiator, Taban Deng Gai, said at a press conference in the Ethiopian capital.
South Sudan's information minister, Michael Makuei, said: "We have come for peace and we will go back to our people with peace."
Talks which began on Saturday were due to resume yesterday in Addis Ababa, in an attempt to end the violence that has shaken South Sudan.
The fighting is the worst in South Sudan since it won independence from Sudan in 2011 in a peace deal that ended one of Africa's longest civil wars. It has also forced China's state-owned oil giants China National Petroleum Corporation and Sinopec to evacuate workers.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti said Kiir and Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir had discussed the deployment of a joint force to secure oilfields under threat from the rebels. But the foreign ministry in Khartoum issued a statement yesterday denying media reports that the matter had been discussed, according to the official Sudanese news agency SUNA.
It added that, based on a request from the Juba government, Sudan would prepare a mission of 900 technicians ready to go to work in South Sudan's oil fields in case their help is needed.
South Sudan's oil production fell by 45,000 barrels per day to 200,000 after oilfields in its northern Unity state were shut down by the recent fighting. Oil giant BP estimates South Sudan holds sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest reserves. All its oil is piped through its northern neighbour, providing vital hard currency in transit fees for Sudan.
Historian Douglas Johnson said the risk to revenues if the fighting spread to more oilfields would be a worry for Khartoum, and oil firms would be reluctant to return to contested oilfields.
"A deal between Juba and Khartoum whereby Sudan helps to provide security in the oilfields would probably bring at least some of the oil companies back," said Johnson.
The lack of progress at peace talks has unnerved foreign powers, including China, who worry that South Sudan could spiral into full-blown civil war.
"The delaying tactics that we are seeing at the moment in Addis Ababa give us cause to fear that the conflicting sides have no real interest in a swift political solution," said a German foreign ministry spokesman.
The United Nations said there had been signs over the weekend of pro- and anti-government troops mobilising.
Ugandan army spokesman Paddy Ankunda said it was deploying more troops to help stranded Ugandans.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg