South Sudanese rebels rejected a government plan this week to end a dispute over detainees and unblock peace talks aimed at halting violence that has killed at least 1 000 people in the world's youngest state.
Three weeks of fighting, often along ethnic fault lines, has pitted President Salva Kiir's SPLA government forces against rebels loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar and brought the oil-exporting nation close to civil war.
Both sides met face to face for the first time on Tuesday in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in a bid to agree to a ceasefire, but faced new delays after Kiir refused a rebel demand to release 11 detainees who were arrested last year over an alleged coup plot.
On Wednesday, the government proposed to shift the peace talks to the United Nations compound in Juba, enabling the 11 detainees to attend the negotiations during the day and return to custody in the evening. "They [the rebels] seem to have rejected that," South Sudan's presidential spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny said.
Taban Deng Gai, the head of the opposition delegation at the Addis Ababa talks, said Juba was not a good venue for the talks. "I don't think that will be accepted from this side because Juba is a big prison," he said.
China's 'clear' position
Meanwhile, China this week called for an immediate end to hostilities in South Sudan. In a rare overt political intervention in Africa, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said he is deeply concerned by the unrest in the country.
"China's position with regard to the current situation in South Sudan is very clear," Wang told reporters in Addis Ababa.
"First, we call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and violence."
China will do what it can to help to restore stability in South Sudan, he said, and urged international powers to back the Ethiopian-led mediation efforts. An Ethiopian delegate told Reuters that Wang met both rebel and government delegations. China is Africa's single biggest trading partner, having overtaken the United States over the past decade, but professes to remain neutral and not interfere in African states' internal politics.
It is the biggest investor in oilfields in South Sudan through state-owned Chinese oil groups China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) and Sinopec. The fighting forced CNPC to evacuate workers. South Sudan is estimated by BP to hold sub-Saharan Africa's third biggest oil reserves.
The fighting is the worst in South Sudan since it won independence from Sudan in 2011 in a peace deal. It has displaced more than 200 000 people and cut oil exports. Both sides reported fighting around Bor, north of Juba, this week.
There are Sudanese fears that the three-week conflict could damage its struggling economy. All of landlocked South Sudan's oil is piped through its northern neighbour, providing vital hard currency in transit fees for Khartoum.
The return of Sudanese troops to the south could send the crisis in an unpredictable new direction; at least two-million people died during the north-south conflict that eventually led to the south's independence.
Anti-government forces loyal to Machar control the town of Bentiu, the capital of the oil-rich Unity state. The south's government has said oil is no longer flowing from Unity's fields. Most, if not all, of the Chinese and Pakistani oil workers have left the country because of the outbreak of violence.
Kiir and Machar were comrades during the south's struggle against Khartoum, which culminated in a US-funded referendum and secession in July 2011. Relations with Sudan had remained fraught and renewed war seemed possible. But in March the two countries agreed to resume pumping oil through pipelines from south to north. A month later, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir made his first visit to the south since it gained independence.
A 'huge sacrifice'
On Monday, Bashir said he feared that, after allowing South Sudan to hold a vote to break away from Sudan in 2011, the outbreak of violence could mean "that our huge sacrifice did not bear fruit".
"We have come to see what we can do to stop this war, knowing all too well that armed conflict would never resolve a problem and also knowing that any problem, no matter how complicated, can be solved at the negotiation table," Bashir said. "We fought each other for 20 years and in the end we sat and talked peace. Any further fighting is just a perpetuation of suffering for innocent civilians and loss of lives and more destruction."
He added: "We are convinced that armed conflict will only create complications that will do no good, and that the people [of South Sudan] must and will come back to the negotiating table."
Kiir said "taking power by military force is a crime" and that Machar's actions should be condemned by the international community.
Despite the international pressure from multiple sides, the violence goes on. Fighting continues outside the flashpoint town of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, which has untapped oil reserves. On Sunday, a South Sudanese army general was killed when a government convoy was ambushed.
Oxfam has reiterated its warning of a growing humanitarian crisis, noting that the Awerial refugee camp on the banks of the Nile is now home to 75 000 people. Desire Assogbavi, head of the charity's African Union liaison office in Addis Ababa, said: "Thousands of families already living in extreme poverty have been pushed from their homes and cut off from what they need to survive.
"We are doing what we can to ensure those most affected by the violence have their basic needs met, such as access to food, water and sanitary living conditions. But if the conflict continues, it will become even more difficult to meet the increasing needs of those affected."
The conflict has taken on ethnic undertones: Kiir is from the majority Dinka community and Machar from the Nuer group. – © Guardian News & Media 2014, Reuters