South Sudan crisis: US push for Kiir and Machar direct talks

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Media captionThe US still has influence in South Sudan, says the BBC's Alastair Leithead

South Sudan's president has agreed to hold direct talks to end the conflict in the country with his rival, US Secretary of State John Kerry has said.

He said the meeting between Salva Kiir and the rebel leader, Riek Machar, could take place as early as next week.

Mr Kerry, who is on a visit to the South Sudanese capital, Juba, said he would be talking to Mr Machar later by phone to get his agreement.

More than a million people have fled their homes since December.

Fighting broke out after President Kiir accused his sacked deputy Mr Machar of plotting a coup.

Mr Machar denied the charges, but then mobilised a rebel force to fight the government.

Their power struggle has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.

The BBC's Emmanuel Igunza in Juba says a face-to-face meeting - even as a mere gesture - would be a game changer in the conflict.

The two sides negotiated a truce in January and have resumed talks in Ethiopia, but the violence has continued.

On Thursday, Mr Kerry warned that if the fighting continues to target civilians along ethnic lines it "could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide".

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Media captionRebel forces have been accused of trying to overthrow the government

After his meeting with Mr Kiir, the US diplomat said that "before the promise of South Sudan's future is soaked in more blood" both sides had to find a way to end the crisis.

"I told President Kiir that the choices that both he and the opposition face are stark and clear. And that the unspeakable human costs that we have seen over the course of the last months and which could even grow if they fail to sit down are unacceptable to the global community," he said.

Mr Kerry said that he had already arranged for the direct talks between the men - who fought together in the civil war before South Sudan's independence - to be mediated by Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Despite a ceasefire, both sides have continued fighting
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Salva Kiir (R), a former rebel leader, became president of the world's newest nation in July 2011
Image copyright AP
Image caption Riek Machar denied accusations that he was plotting a coup, but then mobilised a rebel force to fight

President Kiir was open to taking steps to halt the hostilities and "engage with respect to a transitional government", he added.

The UN has about 8,500 peacekeepers in South Sudan, which became the world's newest state in 2011 after seceding from Sudan.

Mr Kerry has said that he hopes another 2,500 soldiers - which are likely to come from Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda - will be deployed within the next few weeks with a stronger mandate from the UN Security Council.

The US secretary of state's peace efforts will be followed on Saturday by a regional heads of state mini-summit to be held in Juba.

Mr Kerry is on a four-nation tour of Africa, which began in Ethiopia and ends on 5 May.

Image caption Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
Image caption Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Image caption Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north.
Image caption The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Image caption After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Image caption Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however, this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Image caption Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight. This compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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