State Department: South Sudan talks ‘critical’

The State Department late Saturday urged negotiators participating in South Sudan peace talks in Ethiopia to make “rapid, tangible progress.”

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The Intergovernmental Authority on Development announced the start of direct talks in Addis Ababa on Saturday.

“The parties must use these talks to make rapid, tangible progress on a cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access, and the status of political detainees,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said in a statement.

Harf said the U.S. urges South Sudan to uphold its commitments and release political detainees immediately.

“To be meaningful and productive, discussions of political issues requires the presence of the senior SPLM members currently detained in Juba, among others,” she said.

Fighting in South Sudan, which broke out several weeks ago, has killed more than 1,000, according to some estimates, and displaced tens of thousands more.

The fighting is between the country’s two main ethnic groups — the Dinka, of which President Salva Kiir is a member, and the Nuer, the community to which former Vice President Riek Machar belongs. Machar, who is supported by the rebels, will attend the talks.

Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the start of talk, but said they were "only a first step."

"Both parties need to put the interests of South Sudan above their own, and that has been a message we have consistently delivered to those engaged in this conflict," Kerry told reporters in Jerusalem. "Negotiations have to be serious. They cannot be a delay gimmick in order to continue the fighting and try to find advantage on the ground at the expense of the people of South Sudan. They have to be credible talks, and both parties need to approach the talks with courage and with resolve, with the clear intent of trying to find a political solution."

“These talks are of critical importance to the people of South Sudan. There can be no military solution to this conflict,” Harf added. “Forging a durable and lasting peace depends on resolving the underlying political causes of the conflict. Special Envoy Booth's presence at the talks in Addis Ababa underscores our enduring commitment to peace, reconciliation, and a unified, democratic South Sudan.”

--This report was updated at 8:17 a.m.