JUBA, South Sudan — Negotiators from South Sudan’s two warring sides arrived Wednesday in Ethiopia for peace talks, and a U.N. official urged both forces to bring the world’s newest country “back from the brink.”
Fighting continued in Bor, a gateway city to the capital, Juba, a government official said. Bor is 75 miles from Juba.
Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, is the center of ethnically based violence stemming from the political rivalry between President Salva Kiir and ousted Vice President Riek Machar, the rebel leader accused of mounting a failed coup attempt.
Kiir declared a state of emergency Wednesday in Jonglei and Unity, two states where rebel forces have gained the upper hand in recent fighting.
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Machar said Tuesday he would send his forces from Bor to Juba, but that threat was played down by Hilde Johnson, the U.N. representative in South Sudan.
“I think we need to take quotations with pinches of salt at this point of time,” Johnson said.
“On Jan. 1, the country is at a fork in the road, but it can still be saved from further major escalation of violence,” she said.
Johnson urged Kiir and Machar to use the new talks to move toward peace, adding: “They can still pull the country back from the brink.”
The fighting in Bor alone has displaced more than 60,000 people, making it the latest humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, where an estimated 180,000 people have been forced from their homes. The international Red Cross said the road from Bor to the nearby Awerial area was lined with people waiting for boats so they could cross the White Nile River.
“There are tens of thousands of people here who literally picked up their kids and a few belongings and fled to the first safe place they could get to, which is Awerial,” said David Nash, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders. “They are camped out under trees with no sanitation and no safe drinking water.”
Two teams of five negotiators each arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s prime minister. The Ethiopian foreign minister said talks were expected to start Thursday.
The United Nations is “gravely concerned” about mounting evidence of gross violations of international human-rights law, including the killings of civilians and captured soldiers, it said Tuesday. The U.N.’s estimate of 1,000 dead was given days ago and the number of fatalities is believed to be higher as a result of the new fighting around the country, including in Bor.
South Sudan Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin labeled Bor a war zone.
Government troops pulled out of parts of Bor because they were concerned about having to kill the “young boys” who fill the rebel ranks, one analyst said.
Johnson, the U.N. representative, said 240 U.N. police were arriving in South Sudan to help police refugee camps.