BY ELIAS MESERET AND BEN CURTIS
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — South Sudan’s warring factions held preliminary meetings Friday ahead of the official start of negotiations in neighboring Ethiopia, mediators said.
Dina Mufti, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry, said the introductory meetings were necessary to bridge the groups’ differences ahead of direct talks expected to start Saturday. The meetings are being held at Addis Ababa’s Sheraton Hotel.
Meanwhile, both sides continue to fight in the world’s newest country, and the U.S. Embassy in Juba, the capital, said Friday the Department of State ordered a “further drawdown” of embassy personnel because of the “deteriorating security situation.” An evacuation flight was being arranged Friday, the statement said.
South Sudan’s government has declared a state of emergency in Unity and Jonglei, two states whose capitals are under rebel control. On Thursday the central government warned that rebels loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar were preparing to march to Juba from Bor, the capital of Jonglei state that has been the scene of fierce fighting between government troops and rebels.
South Sudan’s military said Thursday it had sent reinforcements to Bor, 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Juba.
South of Bor, thousands of families have been fleeing to the Nile River region of Awerial. Families are now camping out in the shade below any tree they can find. Aid groups estimate that tens of thousands of residents – perhaps between 60,000 and 75,000 – have streamed out of Bor in search of safety from a group of Lou Nuer attackers – fighters seen as loyal to Machar – referred to by some as the White Army.
“The White Army just took over after everybody left the village. They burned all the huts and they shoot people too during that fight. Even my mother got shot. She got a broken leg. She (is) OK,” said Phillip Madol, 33, who was one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” young men who were moved to the United States during the country’s old civil war when South Sudan was still part of Sudan.
“It’s hard to get medical (treatment) now,” said Madol, who studied at Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan. “All this place is way dirty. All the children are getting dirtier and sick. It’s kind of hard to tell how people survived and made it through to this side of the river.”
Toby Lanzer, the U.N.’s top humanitarian official in South Sudan, said Friday that the situation around Awerial is difficult. “We’re working to get as much aid to civilians there as possible,” he wrote on Twitter. The International Red Cross says Awerial is the “largest single identified concentration of displaced people in the country so far.”
Deng Ghai Deng, 19, fled Bor and crossed the Nile with his sister. He said fighting in Bor killed many, and he complained that the displaced families have no safe drinking water, food or shelter.
“Some of the children, even the small kids they are starving in the forest in Jonglei state,” he said. “They don’t have transport so they can cross the river into Lakes state where I am now. The situation is really very bad. My mum and dad, they are still in Jonglei state, they are still in the forest. They will not come because of money.”
President Salva Kiir insists the fighting was sparked by a coup attempt mounted by soldiers loyal to Machar on Dec. 15. But that account has been disputed by some officials of the ruling party who say the violence began when presidential guards from Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group tried to disarm those from the Nuer group of Machar. From there, violence spread across the country, with forces loyal to Machar defecting and seizing territory from loyalist forces.
South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension and a power struggle within the ruling party that escalated after Kiir dismissed Machar as his vice president in July. The rebels back Machar, who is now a fugitive sought by the military.
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal. Before that, the south fought decades of war with Sudan.
Curtis reported from Awerial, South Sudan.