UN envoy hopes for some agreement at South Sudan peace talks

UN envoy hopes for some agreement at South Sudan peace talks

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. envoy for South Sudan said he hopes "some form of agreement" will be signed Friday in Ethiopia's capital where talks are taking place aimed at ending the country's five-year civil war.

"It might not go quite as far as we all would have hoped, but it might provide the platform for ongoing discussions," David Shearer told reporters Thursday.

Shearer said the negotiations "didn't start well" last week, but over the last three days the parties have split into smaller groups "and there appears to be quite a bit more progress." The two issues currently being discussed are security and constitutional and governance matters, he said.

The Ethiopian-led talks are being backed by the African Union and the regional group IGAD.

There were high hopes that South Sudan would have peace and stability after its independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011. But the country plunged into ethnic violence in December 2013 when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, started battling those loyal to Riek Machar, his former vice president who is a Nuer. A peace deal signed in August 2015 didn't stop the fighting — and a cessation of hostilities agreement this past Dec. 24 was broken within hours.

The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and forced 3.5 million to flee their homes, more than 1.8 million of them leaving the country in what has become the world's fastest growing refugee crisis.

Shearer said both sides are still staging attacks but he expressed hope that things might change.

"If somebody had asked me four months ago would there be a possibility of peace talks I would have said it's unlikely," he said. "So I'm encouraged by where we are right now. I'm encouraged, too, that although there's been violations of the cessation of hostilities, the overall level of violence has come down. But it still very much hangs in the balance."

The envoy said he didn't know what kind of agreement might be reached.

"But clearly how you form a transitional administration, how the opposition parties come into that, and what the composition of that is going to be is going to be the number one thing — and then secondly, how we're going to deal with the armed groups and the government forces, and how do they come together, and what sort of security arrangements are going to come out," he said.

Shearer said the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan that he heads hopes Thursday's resignation by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn won't affect the peace talks. Ethiopia has done "a very energetic and dedicated job of trying to get a peace agreement," he said.

The mandate for the peacekeeping mission was extended at the end of the year for three months, until March 15, and must be renewed by the U.N. Security Council.

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Edith M. Lederer


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