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U.S. pushes for ‘credible talks’ on South Sudan

Refugees who fled the recent violence in South Sudan and crossed the border into Uganda sit with their belongings as they await transportation from a transit center in the town of Koboko to a nearby settlement in Arua District, in northern Uganda, Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. Analysts say the U.S. has turned a blind eye to serious problems of corruption, human-rights abuses and repressive conduct by the government.

Rebecca Vassie/AP

The frustration was obvious in the terse words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. He recalled Washington's deep involvement in the "birth" of South Sudan, how he personally knew all the leaders of the fledgling country and how his diplomats were "constantly talking" to those leaders.

Despite its role as loyal friend and midwife to a new country, the United States has watched helplessly as South Sudan plunged toward civil war in recent weeks. The two feuding leaders, President Salva Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar, must halt their fighting and launch "credible talks" without using talks as a "delay gimmick," Mr. Kerry said on Sunday.

It was clear that Mr. Kerry was losing patience with the politicians of a country that had been heavily dependent on U.S. goodwill and support for years. But a day after his blunt appeal for peace, the two sides were still embroil-ed in war, the talks were still deadlocked and two U.S. rivals – Khartoum and Beijing – were suddenly involved in the crisis.

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Many analysts say the U.S. has been far too indulgent of South Sudan since its independence in 2011. By turning a blind eye to serious problems of corruption, human-rights abuses and repressive conduct by the government, Washington lost its leverage and allowed South Sudan's politicians to descend into open warfare.

The flaws in the U.S. strategy were evident on Monday as the two sides again squabbled over the agenda for the peace talks that were supposed to begin in Addis Ababa last week. And while the talks remained stalled, South Sudan opened the doors to diplomatic intervention by China and Sudan.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is visiting Addis Ababa, said his country is ready to "directly engage" the two sides in the South Sudan conflict, which has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced nearly 200,000 people in the past three weeks.

China has already been "making mediation efforts," the Chinese minister told a news conference, calling for an "immediate cessation of hostilities and violence." He is expected to meet delegations from both sides during his visit to the Ethiopian capital.

China is a powerful economic force in South Sudan, investing heavily in the country's oil industry and buying an estimated 80 per cent of its oil exports. But until now it has been more cautious in its political involvement in the world's newest country. By taking a role in the South Sudan crisis, Beijing could help to weaken U.S. influence in the oil-dependent country.

Meanwhile, in another major development, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir flew to the South Sudan capital, Juba, on Monday and held direct talks with Mr. Kiir at the presidential palace. The two presidents are discussing a possible "mixed force" of troops from both countries to protect South Sudan's oil fields, according to Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti.

Sudan has a direct interest in the oil fields because the output is exported by pipelines through Sudan to a port on the Red Sea, producing substantial revenue for Khartoum. But a diplomatic role for Sudan in the current crisis – and even the possibility of Sudanese military forces in South Sudan – would be a remarkable shift after decades of war between Khartoum and the South Sudanese. The war was not settled until 2005. Khartoum accepted South Sudan's independence after a referendum in 2011, but political conflicts have continued since then, especially on border issues and in disputed oil regions.

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A diplomatic role for Mr. al-Bashir could be difficult for Washington to accept. He has feuded with the United States for years and been indicted for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court for allegedly orchestrating genocide and war crimes in the Darfur region.

The United States has traditionally blamed Sudan's hard-line Islamist regime for most of the problems in the largely Christian south, and the independence of South Sudan was strongly supported by U.S. activists and politicians of all parties. But the eruption of fighting in the past three weeks has prompted some analysts and scholars to question U.S. policy and to suggest that South Sudan should be subjected to some form of international supervision.

Hank Cohen, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, proposed on Monday that South Sudan be placed under United Nations trusteeship. "It is time to divest ourselves of all our romantic delusions about South Sudan," Mr. Cohen said in an article published by the Royal African Society in London.

"We were all so focused on helping the South escape the repressive colonial clutches of Khartoum that we forgot about the need to prepare the South Sudanese people for self-government," he said. "Of all the African countries that came to independence since 1950, South Sudan has had the least amount of preparation."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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