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South Sudan

S. Sudan peace talks stalled as fighting continues

South Sudan's warring parties have not yet begun direct talks planned for Saturday. The talks in Ethiopia are being overshadowed by fighting for control of a key oil town.

South Sudan Information Minister Michael Makuei, part of the delegation to the talks at a luxury hotel in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, as well as rebel spokesman Yohanis Musa Pouk, told news agency AFP that the two sides would not begin official talks Saturday until an agenda had been drafted by negotiators and agreed by both sides. It was not clear when they would be completed.

While top leaders of the government and rebel teams have briefly met directly, the rivals are reportedly still holding separate talks with negotiators.

"The heads of the two delegations need to agree on an agenda... maybe tomorrow or after tomorrow," Pouk told AFP.

The rival factions already met special envoys from regional nations on Friday, and Ethiopia's foreign minister had confirmed that direct talks were expected on Saturday.

"We just finished the first round of proxy talks with both negotiating teams of South Sudan," the minister, Tedros Adhanom, said on his Twitter feed.

But a spokesman for the government army has expressed skepticism that the talks would succeed, telling the Sudan Tribune newspaper that the rebels were not interested in talks because they are convinced that they have the upper hand in the field.

Fighting over Bor

The first face-to-face talks between South Sudanese rebels and President Salva Kiir's government would have taken place against the backdrop of heightened military tension as the government army closed in on the rebel-held town of Bor.

"We have enough forces who will defeat the rebels within 24 hours," army spokesman Philip Aguer said, with reports already emerging of intense tank and artillery battles on the outskirts of Bor, a dusty oil town that has already exchanged hands three times since fighting began.

"These forces - the rebels - are now retreating back," Aguer insisted, disputing rebel claims that they were marching on the capital Juba.

Rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar told the British Telegraph newspaper that his forces would refrain from attacking Juba in the hope of achieving a "negotiated settlement." But he also warned that government forces should also stop trying to take territory under his control.

Thousands killed

Thousands of people are thought to have been killed in the fighting since it erupted on December 15. Army units loyal to Kiir are facing an alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders now under his rival Machar.

The violence has also forced around 200,000 people to flee their homes and "affected many hundreds of thousands of people indirectly," United Nations aid official Toby Lanzer said.

About 57,000 are also seeking refuge with badly overstretched UN peacekeepers.

The conflict has also been marked by an surge of ethnic violence between members of Kiir's Dinka tribe and Machar's Nuer community. The army has set up committees to probe the killing of "innocent people."

bk/tj (AFP, Reuters, EPD)