South Sudan Peace Talks Begin, Fighting Persists

Peace talks have begun between the government and rebels in South Sudan, but there's no immediate sign of an end to the fighting. The talks are being held in neighboring Ethiopia, where observers say any progress is likely to take some time.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Our colleague Gregory Warner was reporting in South Sudan recently and he described something ominous. As he put it, people are starting to ask who their neighbors are. It suggested that a violent political struggle in Africa's youngest country could erupt into a civil war fueled by tribal differences. Today, South Sudan's warring factions will meet for the first time in neighboring Ethiopia. This comes as fighting still rages. Here again, NPR's Gregory Warner.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: President Salva Kiir declared a state of emergency last night in two states, Unity and Jonglei, and today, both sides resumed their battle for Jonglei's capital, known as Bor. The mayor, Nhial Majak Nhial, reached by cell phone said that nearly every resident has fled. Thousands have gone to the remote, swampy pasturelands up north.

MAYOR NHIAL MAJAK NHIAL: There are serious health issues and also the rebels have moved into our town and people are running with only barely nothing in their hands.

WARNER: This conflict, which began in South Sudan, is a political dispute over control of the ruling party has unfolded into a military battle for territory. President Salva Kiir and his national army are fighting former vice-president, Riek Machar and soldiers defected to his side. Civilians have been killed by soldiers on both sides along ethnic lines.

U.S. Special Envoy Donald Booth is in Addis Ababa today for the peace talks. He spoke yesterday to NPR.

DONALD BOOTH: And we have made clear that those who have been responsible for those violations of human rights will need to be held accountable, but the priority right now is to get the sides to agree to stop the fighting and build the confidence of that situation and (unintelligible) hold.

WARNER: A lasting cease fire will mean solving thorny questions about the handover of power in the world's newest nation founded in 2011. Will Riek Machar, currently leading the rebel forces, find a way to legitimately contest the presidency in 2015? And will the current president, Salva Kiir, accused of authorizing an ethnic massacre, be able to hold onto his mantle as the recognized leader of all tribes? Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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