South Sudan rebels on Monday threatened to stall peace talks aimed at ending nearly two months of fighting, demanding the release of detainees and the withdrawal of foreign troops as officials said a new round had been postponed.
The talks between South Sudan's government and the rebels that were due to open in Ethiopia are aimed at building on a shaky ceasefire agreement and bringing about a comprehensive and durable solution by addressing the root causes of the conflict.
"The talks are not resuming today," South Sudan government spokesman Michael Makuei told AFP, without explaining the delay. A government official from host country Ethiopia confirmed the postponement.
Makuei said the talks were now set to begin on Tuesday afternoon.
"We are informed that his excellency the prime minister of Ethiopia wants to attend the opening session. We are told that it is tomorrow afternoon," Makuei said.
South Sudan rebels demand the release of detainees and the withdrawal of foreign troops, the opposition said Monday.
"We are abstaining from participating in the next round of peace talks," Taban Deng, head of the opposition delegation, said in a statement.
Deng demanded the release of four detainees who remain in prison following the release of seven of their colleagues in late January.
He also called for the immediate withdrawal of Ugandan troops, who have been in the country at the request of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir since the conflict erupted on December 15.
FEAR OF REGIONAL CONFLICT
The demand was echoed by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from South Sudan, warning of a threat of regional conflict.
"Because of this intervention, the conflict might end up as a regional conflict because there are other interests also from other sides," Hailemariam told reporters.
"I hope for the cessation of hostilities. ... Ugandan forces and all other external forces must withdraw from that area phase by phase," he said.
Peace delegates loyal to Kiir and supporters of rebel leader Riek Machar, a former vice president, signed a ceasefire on January 23, although fighting has continued in the oil-rich but impoverished country, which won independence from Khartoum in 2011.
The conflict, which started in the capital Juba and spread rapidly to different parts of South Sudan, has left thousands dead since mid-December and has caused nearly 900,000 to flee their homes.
It has also had a tribal dimension, with the two largest ethnic communities, the Dinka, to which Kiir belongs, and Machar's group the Nuer both carrying out ethnic massacres.
Eleven South Sudanese political figures were arrested in Juba when the fighting broke out. Seven of them were freed at the end of January and are set to take part in the new negotiations, according to IGAD, the regional grouping that is helping mediate the talks.
The government side wants to try the four who are still detained, along with two other political figures -- including Machar himself -- who are on the run.
During the two-week break in talks IGAD said its mediators briefed the heads of state of member countries, and that the first IGAD officials tasked with monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire were also deployed.
Analysts warned against over-optimism on the talks.
"The negotiations are a stopgap measure at best: the institutional deficiencies that have brought about the violence remain," wrote Peter Biar Ajak, director of the Center for Strategic Analysis and Research in Juba.
"For its (own) sake and the sake of this young country, the political leadership of South Sudan must complete the task it aborted of building basic institutions of governance," Ajak said in an op-ed in the International New York Times last week.