Can peace talks stop South Sudan’s war, or has it reached the point of no return?

By Peter Martell ,AFP

NAIROBI, Kenya — As East African mediators attempt to push South Sudan’s government and rebels into signing a truce, analysts and diplomats fear it may already be too late to halt the war. Regional nations are trying to broker a ceasefire but have already been drawn into the brutal five-week-old conflict, with Ugandan troops battling alongside government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir.

The longer it continues, the more “those who have remained on the sidelines are increasingly pulled into the conflict,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned in a statement this week. “Each day that the conflict continues, the risk of all-out civil war grows as ethnic tensions rise,” she added. Many say it already is a civil war, pitting a conventional army against a loose alliance of mutinied army units and ethnic militia. Each side has been deploying heavy weapons, fighting has been fierce and protracted, and key towns have been changing hands each week. South Sudanese government forces backed by Ugandan troops on Saturday recaptured the strategic town of Bor, defeating an army of thousands of rebels, officials said. A day earlier the United Nations’ top human rights envoy Ivan Simonovic, who has gathered reports of mass killings, sexual violence and widespread destruction, said South Sudan was now in a state of “internal armed conflict” and that the laws of war were applicable. Talks in neighboring Ethiopia are being mediated by the East African regional bloc IGAD, even though Uganda is a key member and the rebels have expressed concern about its neutrality. Rebel chief Riek Machar has accused Ugandan fighter jets of targeting him, and is also deeply critical of suggestions that Sudan, another IGAD member, could deploy troops to help Juba protect oil fields from the rebels. Kenya, which sent in troops to evacuate citizens, also warned in a confidential briefing document this week of the “internationalization” of the conflict. Rebels from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, nervous of a pact between their old allies in Juba and their enemy in Khartoum, are also reportedly operating in oil-rich border zones. The crisis on the ground, therefore, seems to be moving faster than the peace talks and out of the control of the politicians who sparked it. “We are heartbroken to see what was purely a political problem … quickly slide into an ethnic one on a rapid and frightening scale,” read a statement from the South Sudan Council of Churches, an influential coalition of religious leaders. Violence is rooted in decades-old grievances between former rebels turned political leaders, combined with unhealed wounds left over from the two-decades long civil war that preceded South Sudan’s independence from Khartoum in 2011.