China weighs in as South Sudan peace talks open

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - Peace talks between South Sudan's government and rebels started in Ethiopia on Monday, as key power China added its weight to efforts to end weeks of fighting in the world's youngest nation.

Sudan said meanwhile that it and South Sudan agreed during a visit to Juba by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to consider setting up a joint force to protect vital oilfields.

Ethiopian government spokesman Getachew Reda, whose government has spent days trying to get the two sides into the same room, said that formal negotiations on a possible ceasefire had finally started in an Addis Ababa luxury hotel - even as fighting continued to rage back in South Sudan.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking at the start of a four-nation Africa visit, said Beijing was also trying to push for peace and was actively engaged in mediation efforts. China has invested heavily in the country's oil sector and buys most of its crude output.

"China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, so we are paying close attention to the evolving situation in South Sudan," Mr Wang told reporters.

"We have been making mediation efforts, and the Chinese government special representative for African affairs is visiting the region and has had meetings with both sides," he said, offering to personally "directly engage" with the two sides while in Addis Ababa.

A surge in diplomatic efforts also saw Sudan's President Bashir jet into South Sudan's capital Juba for talks with his counterpart Salva Kiir during which he stressed Khartoum's support for "a peaceful resolution to the conflict".

Sudan's foreign minister Ali Ahmed Karti also said the two are "in consultations about the deployment of a mixed force to protect the oilfields in the South." But fighting has continued to rage, with both sides vowing to step up their offensives across the country - which has been teetering on the brink of all-out civil war less than three years after gaining independence from Khartoum.

Heavy fighting has been reported in oil-producing Unity and Upper Nile states in the north, and in particular near rebel-held Bor, capital of Jonglei State just north of the capital. Army spokesman Philip Aguer said it was only a "matter of time" before Bor was recaptured.

The conflict in South Sudan erupted on Dec 15, pitting army units loyal to Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by Riek Machar, a former vice president who was sacked last July.

Machar denies allegations that he started the conflict by attempting a coup, and in turn accuses the president of orchestrating a violent purge.

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