SOUTH Sudan’s government refused to sign a peace deal with rebels Monday despite the threat of international sanctions, but will return to finalise an agreement within 15 days, mediators said.
Rebel chief Riek Machar however said he had signed a deal, and called on President Salva Kiir to join, thus allowing him to score easy public relations point and appear like being pro-peace, with his rival being intransigent.
“It was an opportunity for us to end the war,” Machar said, seizing the moment.
“We call on President Kiir to reconsider his position so that they can sign and we can go forward,” he added. Machar signed a deal, along with the secretary-general of the ruling party Pagan Amum, but mediators said he was not representing the government.
Kiir—who watched the signing and briefly shook hands with Machar—had warned from the start of talks it would not be possible to sign a credible peace deal because rebel forces have split.
Split in rebel ranks
Powerful rebel general Peter Gadet and other key commanders last week accused Machar of seeking power for himself, and said they would not recognise any deal agreed.
Kiir, who earlier said a “peace that cannot be sustained cannot be signed,” left without comment after the meeting Monday.
The international community had threatened possible sanctions if a deal was not reached by the end of the day, and it was not clear if the result of talks on Monday would ward off any repercussions.
Equally uncertain, is whether after 15 days Kiir will ink the deal - previously all such promises have fallen through.
“They (the government) have certain reservations” and have decided to go back home for consultations, chief mediator Seyoum Mesfin said. “In the next 15 days, the president will come back to Addis Ababa and finalise the peace agreement.
Kiir arrived in Ethiopia Sunday for the peace talks aimed at brokering an end to civil war, reversing an earlier decision as international threats of possible sanctions mount.
However Kiir, who said he had been “compelled” to join the talks alongside rebel leaders and regional presidents, warned it would not be possible to sign a lasting or full peace deal until all opposition factions could join the agreement.
“You should sign something that you will enjoy. If it is signed today and then tomorrow we go back to war, then what have we achieved?”
South Sudan’s government and rebels have been under intense diplomatic pressure to sign the deal by the Monday deadline to end a 20-month civil war in which tens of thousands of people have been killed.
Kiir’s arch-rival, rebel Machar, had not appeared publicly in Addis Ababa but multiple sources said he had been in the Ethiopian capital for several days.
Kiir previously had said he would send his deputy, but on Sunday he decided to go himself after consultations with regional leaders, who have already arrived in Addis Ababa for the summit meeting on Monday.
“Even if I am not happy, I must show my face because if I don’t go, negative forces will take me as the one against the peace that was going to be signed,” Kiir added.
‘Not afraid of sanctions’
On Sunday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has sent troops into South Sudan to back Kiir, held talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013 when Kiir accused his former deputy Machar of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings that has split the poverty-stricken, landlocked country along ethnic lines.
On Tuesday, rebel generals said they had split from Machar.
The latest round of talks opened on August 6, mediated by the regional eight-nation bloc IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, as well as the United Nations, African Union, China and the “troika” of Britain, Norway and the United States.
Warning from diplomats
Diplomats have warned any failure to sign a peace deal could trigger “serious consequences” for the rival leaders.
Britain’s minister for Africa, Grant Shapps, warned on Friday of possible “targeted sanctions” and an arms embargo if no deal is made.
During previous peace talks held in luxury Ethiopian hotels, Kiir, Machar and their entourages have run up millions of dollars in expenses while failing to sign a single lasting agreement.
At least seven ceasefires have been agreed and then broken within days, if not hours.
Marked by widespread atrocities on both sides, the war has been characterised by ethnic massacres and rape. Recent attacks have included castration, burning people alive and tying children together before slitting their throats.
More than 70% of the country’s 12 million people need aid, while 2.2 million people have fled their homes, the UN says, with areas on the brink of famine.
Largest number of civil war
Almost 200,000 South Sudanese civilians are sheltering in UN bases, the largest number in 20 months of civil war, the United Nations said Monday.
A total of 199,602 civilians are now seeking safety behind the barbed wire of eight peacekeeping bases of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), an increase of a third in just over a month.
Many fled into the bases, in six towns or cities including the capital Juba, as war broke out in December 2013 and have never left because they are too terrified to venture out for fear of being killed, with the number continuing to rise.
Over 121,000 civilians are sheltering in Bentiu, capital of the northern battleground state of Unity, making the camp one of the largest settlements in the country after the capital Juba.
In Malakal, state capital of Upper Nile, over 16,000 have arrived since mid-July, taking the total there to 46,500, after aid deliveries via the Nile river were blockaded—a restriction now lifted.