South Sudan’s president has agreed to meet his rival as soon as next week to jump-start peace talks that have been stalled for months, US secretary of state John Kerry said.
The move potentially lays the groundwork for a new government to bring the world’s newest nation out of bloodshed.
Mr Kerry met Salva Kiir in his lush office compound in the capital Juba for about 90 minutes and later emerged to announce a tentative agreement for the talks in Ethiopia.
The prime minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn, has agreed to mediate the talks.
Mr Kerry said Mr Kiir’s rival, the former vice president-turned-rebel Riek Machar, has previously indicated he would engage in ceasefire discussions. The American diplomat said he hoped to speak to Mr Machar later.
The US statesman said: “The unspeakable human costs that we are seeing over the course of the last months, and which could even grow if they fail to sit down, are unacceptable to the global community.
“Before the promise of South Sudan’s future is soaked in more blood, president Kiir and the opposition must work immediately for cessation of hostilities and to move toward an understanding about future governance for the country.”
Mr Kiir, who wore his trademark black cowboy hat when he welcomed Mr Kerry to Juba, did not attend the press briefing.
Mr Kerry said a ceasefire could lead to a transitional government in South Sudan but declined to comment on whether Mr Kiir or Mr Macher could have a role in the country’s future leadership.
If the peace talks happen, they would mark a turning point in nearly six months of fighting that has largely broken down along ethnic lines between rival Dinka and Nuer tribes.
The violence has been compared to the threat of genocide, and could also lead to famine later this year since farmers among the near one million South Sudanese who have fled their homes have had to abandon their crops.
Thousands have been killed in the fighting, which began when Mr Kiir, a Dinka, accused Mr Machar, a Nuer, of plotting a coup to seize power last December.
An earlier ceasefire agreement reached last January was abandoned within days.
If the two sides fail to move strongly to curb the violence, or if other fighters continue to violate human rights and disrupt humanitarian aid, Mr Kerry said they would be held accountable. The consequences would range from economic sanctions to, potentially, prosecution by international courts.
The US and UN have threatened to bring sanctions against militants on both sides of the fighting – including, potentially, Mr Kiir and Mr Machar, and Western officials are trying to persuade the African Union to deploy thousands of troops to South Sudan to keep the peace.
Hope for a ceasefire lies largely in the hands of AU officials who are undecided on what a peacekeeping force would look like, as well as leaders of neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda who are weighing their own sanctions against South Sudan.
Those penalties – likely to be freezing the assets and travel privileges of South Sudan’s elite – would carry far more weight than sanctions by the US alone, which has relatively limited interaction with the eastern African nation.