S.Sudan leaders told to talk as famine looms

Addis Ababa (AFP) - South Sudan's warring leaders must resume stalled peace talks in earnest before the months-long bloody conflict is written off as an international lost cause, a senior AU official warned on Monday.

"They have to realise that the world is watching them, that the world will not wait for them indefinitely," said Olusegun Obasanjo, the head of an African Union team probing atrocities in the war-torn country.

Thousands have been killed and more than 1.5 million people forced to flee as a political row between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar has spiralled into brutal ethnic conflict.

The world's newest nation is facing a worse crisis than during the two decades of war before South Sudan declared independence three years ago, with some 100,000 people crammed into squalid UN camps.

Aid agencies warn the country could plunge into famine in weeks with almost four million people in need of aid if international donors do not make up a shortfall of over a billion dollars.

Peace talks in luxury hotels in Addis Ababa have made little progress and last month the negotiations halted indefinitely, with both sides refusing to attend the discussions.

Former Nigerian president Obasanjo, who is heading up an AU probe to investigate atrocities in South Sudan following reports both sides have committed gross human rights violations, urged reconciliation.

"The alternative to talking is for them to go into violence again, so we must encourage them to keep talking," he said.

The regional mediating bloc, IGAD, has given both sides until August 11 to form an interim government, a deadline that looks unlikely to be met after a third ceasefire was recently broken.

Without meaningful talks, "anything can happen, there can be outbreak (of violence) and the outbreak can snowball".

Two mass graves had so far been discovered, he said, with reports of further burial sites in oil-rich Bentiu and Bor, which have been the scenes of heavy fighting between the Dinka people loyal to Kiir and Machar's Nuer tribe.

Obasanjo urged leaders to focus on political reform, arguing that justice is a crucial first step towards ending the conflict.

"The first thing that you have to do to reconcile people is to ensure that theres an element of justice," he said.