African leaders seek peace talks in South Sudan

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JUBA, South Sudan -- African leaders tried Thursday to advance peace talks between South Sudan's president and political rivals he accuses of attempting a coup to topple the government of the world's newest country.

As fighting persisted in parts of South Sudan's oil-producing region, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had "a constructive dialogue" with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, according to Mr. Kiir's foreign minister. But the fugitive former deputy president who now leads renegade troops was not represented, and no political breakthrough emerged.

The next round of meetings will be held today in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where regional leaders under a bloc known as IGAD are to meet to discuss a report from Thursday's meeting, South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said.

Mr. Kiir agreed "in principle" to stop hostilities and to negotiate with former Vice President Riek Machar, who is expected to be formally invited by IGAD to attend upcoming peace talks, said Mr. Benjamin, who offered no details.

It was not possible to reach Mr. Machar, as his known phone numbers were switched off.

Government troops are trying to retake control of Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, from forces loyal to Mr. Machar. Fighting was also reported in Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state. Upper Nile and Unity comprise the country's key oil-producing region, raising concerns that unrest there could cut off the economic lifeblood of the young nation, which gets nearly its entire government budget from oil.

Citing more progress against rebels on the battlefield, South Sudan's minister of information told reporters that national forces on Thursday regained "full control" of Malakal. Michael Makuei Lueth said "criminal elements" had been looting the town, but the army now had it under control.

Military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said government troops were "preparing to retake Bentiu as soon as possible." The government said its forces retook Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, earlier this week, but Hilde Johnson, head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, said there was still fighting in the city Thursday.

The fighting has provoked fears of a civil war in the country that peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal.

The United States, Norway and Ethiopia are leading efforts to open peace talks between Mr. Kiir and his political rivals. Mr. Kiir said in a Christmas address that he is willing to "dialogue" with all his opponents.

The United Nations is investigating reports of mass killings since violence began spreading after a Dec. 15 fight among the presidential guards that pitted soldiers from Mr. Kiir's Dinka ethnic group against those from the Nuer ethnic group of Mr. Machar.


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