Hopes for South Sudan peace grow as deal awaits signatures
ADDIS ABABA - South Sudan's government and rebels are expected to sign a peace deal later Thursday aimed at ending the month-old conflict in the world's newest nation, mediators said.
"There is going to be a signing ceremony... by the South Sudanese parties at 5:00 pm (1400 GMT) today," mediators from the regional bloc IGAD said in a statement.
Fighting broke out between rival army units in the capital Juba on December 15, with President Salva Kiir accusing his sacked deputy Riek Machar of attempting a coup.
The conflict quickly deteriorated into all-out war between the regular army, who are being backed by Ugandan troops, and defectors and ethnic militia, with the violence also pitting Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer group.
The peace deal presented by IGAD mediators is expected to cover a ceasefire agreement and address the issue of 11 detainees close to Machar who were arrested after the fighting started.
Aid workers and analysts say the conflict has left up to 10,000 dead, while around half a million people have fled their homes.
A rebel spokesperson said he believed a breakthrough could happen soon, but could not provide details of a possible deal.
"It seems as if something could happen," Yohanis Musa Pouk said.
The conflict in South Sudan has been marked by human rights abuses as bad as those reported from war-torn nations like Syria and Somalia, a senior aid official said Thursday.
Jan Egeland, a former United Nations aid chief and now head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said reports of large-scale recruitment of child soldiers signalled that the month-old conflict could still get worse.
"We're very, very concerned that there's more and more killings along ethnic lines. That started as a purely political struggle among men who could have settled this in a political bargaining process. Now women and children die because these men are not willing to sit down and talk," Egeland said.
"The gruesome slaughtering of defenceless civilians is as bad as in Syria, in Somalia, as elsewhere. The whole point here is that it can be avoided, it should be avoided, it must be avoided," he said.
"What perhaps is particularly worrying now is the reports we hear now from our hundreds of local staff now that they see the recruitment of child soldiers among ethnic groups. So as bad as it is now, it can get infinitely worse if it is not stopped in time," he added.
NRC is one of the largest aid groups operating in South Sudan, with projects across the world's youngest nation.
Aid workers and analysts believe that as many as 10,000 people have died, while around half a million have been forced from their homes.
The United Nations has said it is investigating widespread reports of atrocities and war crimes.