Peace Talks Delayed As Conditions In South Sudan Worsen

After a short delay, peace talks between mediators and delegates for the warring parties in South Sudan have opened in Ethiopia. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with The New York Times' Nicholas Kulish about the violence there and prospects for the negotiations.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After a short delay, peace talks between the warring parties in South Sudan have opened in Ethiopia. But even as negotiations begin, the fighting continues. A top Sudanese general has been killed in an ambush outside the town of Bor, according to a BBC correspondent traveling with the military. In the past three weeks, at least a thousand people have died in the fighting in South Sudan, and as many as 200,000 may be displaced. Joining us with the latest is Nicholas Kulish of the New York Times. He's been reporting from South Sudan and is now in Nairobi, Kenya. Thanks so much for being with us.

NICHOLAS KULISH: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: As I understand it, there are two sides in this conflict: those who support President Salva Kiir and those who support his former vice president, who's suspected of a coup attempt. And delegates from both of these parties have gathered in Addis Ababa. What's on the agenda for these talks? How ambitious are they?

KULISH: Well, they're not actually that ambitious. The two things they've laid out is discussion of the release of political prisoners and trying to have a cease-fire. So, this is not a wide-ranging negotiation that you see.

MARTIN: Trying to hammer out a path for a cease-fire though, does either side have the upper hand in these negotiations?

KULISH: I'm not sure that we even know which side has the upper hand. But I think it's pretty clear that both sides believe that they do. You know, the rebel forces have made significant advances, taking the town of Bor, and appear to have some territory south of there. But the government claims that it's retaken Bor and that it has everything under control. I would say at the moment the momentum is a little bit with former Vice President Riek Machar's rebel forces.

MARTIN: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters this morning that the talks over South Sudan need to be substantive, not some kind of delay tactic to keep the fighting going on the ground. But the conflict is still raging, as you just mentioned. Where else is the violence happening right now?

KULISH: You know, really all over the country there's been sporadic fighting. In half the states or more in more than 20 different cities. I think a lot of people are particularly worried about unity state. Near the town of Bentiu, where I think there's been very fierce fighting and little in the way of international observers who can tell us what's going on.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, aid groups have been working around the clock in South Sudan. You've been reporting there recently. What did you see in Juba?

KULISH: You know, until last night, Juba had been relatively calm, but there are tens of thousands of internally displaced people living in very poor conditions on United Nations bases where they sought refuge. I think that sort of the worst humanitarian crisis that I saw was across the Nile from the city of Bor in a place called Awarial, where some 70,000 people are living with little access to clean water, to food, to shelter. South Sudan went through literally decades of civil war in the fight to separate itself from the regime in Khartoum. So, I think that while, on the one hand, people are used to outbreaks of fighting, I think they also have a certain fatalism that once something like this starts, it can be a lot harder to stop. So, people did not seem optimistic when I spoke with them.

MARTIN: The New York Times' Nicholas Kulish. He's been reporting from South Sudan. He joined us on the line from Nairobi, Kenya. Thanks so much for talking with us.

KULISH: Thanks a lot for having me.

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