UN: 120,000 people displaced by S. Sudan violence

Associated Press
In this photo released by the Kenyan Presidential Press Service, President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, and South Sudan President Silva Kiir, right, inspect a guard of honor when the Kenyan President arrived in Juba for peace talks, South Sudan. Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The leaders of Kenya and Ethiopia arrived in South Sudan on Thursday to try and mediate between the country's president and the political rivals he accuses of attempting a coup that the government insists sparked violence threatening to destroy the world's newest country. (AP Photo/Kenyan Presidential Press Service)
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JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — More than 120,000 people have been displaced by continuing violence in South Sudan, the United Nations said, as African leaders met Friday to find a political solution to a crisis that has exposed ethnic rifts within the country.

Regional leaders under a bloc called IGAD are meeting Friday in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to discuss South Sudan. That summit is expected to produce a roadmap for peace talks between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, Kiir's political rival who is accused of orchestrating a failed coup that the government says sparked unrest across the oil-producing East African country.

"We in Kenya and the region are concerned with the loss of lives and resultant humanitarian crisis and would like to see the government taking the initiative to end hostilities," Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said late Thursday.

The number of internally displaced people has been rising since fighting started on Dec. 15 in the capital, Juba, before spreading across the country. Now there are sporadic military clashes in the oil-rich states of Unity and Upper Nile, potentially endangering the oil revenues that South Sudan depends on to keep the government running.

The U.N. said aid agencies need at least $166 million to save lives.

Machar, the alleged leader of renegade forces now in control of some parts of South Sudan, remains a fugitive wanted by the military. At least 10 of his political allies are in detention for their roles in the alleged coup plot. Machar denies there was a coup attempt, and some officials with the ruling party insist violence broke out when presidential guards from Kiir's majority Dinka tribe tried to disarm guards from the Nuer ethnic group, leading to wider military clashes along ethnic lines.

The top U.N. humanitarian official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said earlier this week that he believes the death toll has surpassed 1,000. The U.N. also is investigating alleged mass killings in the latest violence.

"We have heard reports of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions of civilians, ill-treatment, abuse and also mass graves," said Hilde Johnson, head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan. "Our human rights officers have been working around the clock, throughout this crisis, and they are investigating these reports and allegations."

Following a meeting Thursday with the leaders of Ethiopia and Kenya, Kiir agreed "in principle" to stop hostilities and to negotiate with Machar, who is expected to be formally invited by IGAD to attend upcoming peace talks, according to South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly urged South Sudan's leaders to start talks, but it remains unclear when Kiir and Machar will start negotiations.

Machar, an influential politician who appears to command the loyalty of Nuer army officers, has criticized Kiir as a dictator and says he will contest the 2015 presidential election. Kiir had fired Machar as his deputy in July following a power struggle within the ruling party, stoking ethnic tensions in a country with a history of divided military loyalties.

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Muhumuza reported from Kampala, Uganda.

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