JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — African leaders tried Thursday to advance peace talks between South Sudan's president and political rivals he accuses of attempting a coup to topple the government of the world's newest country.
As fighting persisted in parts of South Sudan's oil-producing region, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had "a constructive dialogue" with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, according to Kiir's foreign minister. But the fugitive former deputy president who now leads renegade troops was not represented, and no political breakthrough emerged.
The next round of meetings will be held in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where regional leaders under a bloc known as IGAD are to meet Friday to discuss a report from Thursday's meeting, South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said.
Kiir agreed "in principle" to stop hostilities and to negotiate with former Vice President Riek Machar, who is expected to be formally invited by IGAD to attend upcoming peace talks, said Benjamin, who offered no details.
It was not possible to reach Machar, as his known phone numbers were switched off.
Government troops are trying to retake control of Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, from forces loyal to Machar. Fighting was also reported in Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state. Upper Nile and Unity comprise the country's key oil-producing region, raising concerns that unrest there could cut off the economic lifeblood of the young nation, which gets nearly its entire government budget from oil.
Citing more progress against rebels on the battlefield, South Sudan's minister of information told reporters that national forces on Thursday regained "full control" of Malakal. Michael Makuei Lueth said "criminal elements" had been looting the town, but the army now had it under control.
Military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said government troops were "preparing to retake Bentiu as soon as possible."
The government said its forces retook Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, earlier this week, but Hilde Johnson, head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, said there was still fighting in the city on Thursday.
The fighting has provoked fears of a civil war in the country that peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal.
"The nation painstakingly built over decades of conflict and strife is at stake," Johnson told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York by videoconference from Juba. "I therefore call on the political leaders of South Sudan to order their forces to lay down their arms and to give peace a chance, and to do so urgently."
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