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John Kerry gets commitment on peace talks from South Sudan leader

John Kerry said President Salva Kiir promised to “take forceful steps.” Kerry’s visit came amid soaring violence.

Saul Loeb/Associated Press

John Kerry said President Salva Kiir promised to “take forceful steps.” Kerry’s visit came amid soaring violence.

JUBA, South Sudan — US Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that he had secured a commitment from Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s president, to open talks with the former vice president who is leading a rebellion against him. The negotiations could take place early next week.

After meeting with Kiir, Kerry said the South Sudan leader had promised to “take forceful steps” to carry out a cease-fire agreement that the two sides had negotiated in January but promptly ignored, and to begin a discussion on a transitional government.

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The talks are to take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, under the auspices of that country’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn.

Riek Machar, the rebel leader, had previously signaled to the Ethiopians that he was prepared to attend. Kerry said he planned to call Machar later Friday.

Kerry’s visit to South Sudan comes as violence has soared, efforts to deliver humanitarian aid have been frustrated and there are increasing reports of human rights abuses, including sexual violence and the recruitment of child soldiers.

“Already thousands of innocent people have been killed, more than a million people have been displaced,” said Kerry, who added that South Sudan could face “major famine” in the months ahead.

“If both sides do not take steps in order to reduce or end the violence, they literally put their entire country in danger,” Kerry said.

Providing new details about efforts to beef up a U.N. peacekeeping force, Kerry said he expected 2,500 African troops to be deployed in the coming weeks and that a new U.N. Security Council resolution would first need to be adopted.

“We do need to secure an additional United Nations Security Council mandate,” he said. “I hope it can be done quickly.”

Kerry acknowledged that the 2,500 troops that had been promised in his discussions with African leaders was about half of what many experts had expected.

“It may be that depending on the situation more will have to be contemplated,” he added. “But for the moment that is the limit. That is what’s being talked about.”

South Sudan became the African Union’s 54th member in July 2011, achieving its independence after decades of struggle with the strong backing of the United States.

In December 2013, Kiir accused Machar, whom he had dismissed from his post in July, of mounting a coup. Machar, who had suggested that he might challenge Kiir for the leadership of their party, has denied the allegation.

Kiir and Machar agreed to a cease-fire in January, but it was never put into effect.

The conflict has often been seen as a clash between Kiir’s Dinka tribe and Machar’s Nuer tribe. But aides to Kerry assert it is, at its core, a struggle for power between two ruthless politicians.

“It is clear that Riek Machar and Salva Kiir do not have their country’s best good in their hearts,” said a State Department official, who could not be identified under the agency’s protocol for briefing reporters. “This is not a battle Nuer against Dinka. It is a Riek Machar-Salva Kiir battle, and they have used ethnic tensions and their own ethnicity to foment what has been a horrific war in this country.”

U.S. officials say they were aware early on of tensions between Kiir and his former vice president but never anticipated that it would turn into a full-fledged civil war.

The rise in violence has become a major worry for U.S. lawmakers, some of whom say that the Obama administration has been slow to impose the economic sanctions it had threatened to enact.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order on April 3 that provides the legal authorization for sanctions, including a travel ban and the freezing of any assets in the United States against individuals who are responsible for fighting. But it has yet to impose any of the sanctions.

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