With UN Chief In South Sudan, Warring Sides Agree To Talk

Who should send peacekeepers to South Sudan: the United Nations or the African Union? As violence continues, the U.S. is pushing for African troops to step in where the U.N. has failed.

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The president of South Sudan and the commander of the rebels there have agreed to sit down and talk. That's one thing that's come out of a visit to the country by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

As NPR's Gregory Warner reports, the U.N. chief also addressed calls to bring African troops into the troubled peacekeeping process.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: There have been two main international strategies to bringing peace to South Sudan. One is diplomatic: encouraging peace talks. The second is military: sending in peacekeepers. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was happy to announce today some progress in the former. Rebel commander Riek Machar agreed to try to attend peace talks this Friday in the Ethiopian capital.

BAN KI-MOON: He responded positively that he will be in Addis Ababa for the meeting in time. But he said he will try his best there because he is now in a very remote area.

WARNER: His troops are still clashing with government forces in the North. And since both sides have before been heard to talk about peace while still fighting the war, the question was also asked Ban Ki-moon about the peacekeeping mission. And here, he was more apologetic.

KI-MOON: But it has been quite difficult because of the lack of resources - human - and also, the logistics.

WARNER: The U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan has been perennially undermanned. When troops have showed up, they've sometimes lacked the right equipment. And their hands have been full with tens of thousands of civilians who've swarmed their bases seeking protection from machetes and bullets, and then needing the basics: food, tents, latrines.

So when Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region last week, he called for a fresh approach. The U.N., he said, should quickly approve a fighting force of African peacekeepers from neighboring countries - at least 2,500 troops, maybe twice that - and give them a tougher mandate to do what the U.N. has so far failed to do.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: It is our hope that in these next days, literally, we can move more rapidly to put people on the ground who can begin to make a difference.

WARNER: Richard Gowan is the research director of the NYU Center on International Cooperation. He says there are good reasons to invite troops from close by. They have reason to fight - for the stability of their region; maybe more reason than current peacekeepers, be they soldiers from India or police from Nepal.

RICHARD GOWAN: It's why should Nepali police put their lives on the line in South Sudan? The only way that you can get a really credible political peacekeeping presence is if you bring in troops from the region.

WARNER: But having a stake in the outcome can also be a problem. When African troops first offered their help, they suggested defending the government's oil fields. That's OK if you want to keep the oil flowing, but not if you want to seem neutral. The rebel movement in South Sudan is fueled by a lot of things, but mainly by the fact that government soldiers have targeted their ethnicity.

Jean Marie Guehenno is the former undersecretary of peacekeeping for the U.N.

JEAN MARIE GUEHENNO: There is a risk, then, that instead of calming the conflict, you regionalize it.

WARNER: In the end, the two sides may compromise. SecretaryGeneral Ban Ki-moon said today he's open to African troops. And when Secretary John Kerry formerly asks for a U.N. vote on it - probably this week - he likely ask that African troops augment, not compete, with the peacekeepers on the ground. They'll all wear blue helmets. And they'll all follow commands from New York - not Nairobi, not Addis Ababa.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Juba.

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