South Sudan government, rebels sign ceasefire

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - South Sudan's government and rebels on Thursday signed a ceasefire agreement, pledging to halt fighting within 24 hours and end five weeks of bitter conflict that has left thousands dead.

The agreement was signed in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa by representatives of South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and rebel delegates loyal to ousted vice president Riek Machar, and was greeted by cheers from regional mediators and diplomats.

Mediators from the East African regional bloc IGAD, which has been brokering the peace talks, said the deal will put in place a verification and monitoring mechanism for the truce.

South Sudan's government also agreed to release 11 officials close to Machar who were detained after fighting between rival army units broke out on December 15, although no timeline for their release was given. The status of the detainees had been a major sticking point in the talks.

"These two agreements are the ingredients to create an environment for achieving a total peace in my country," said Taban Deng, head of the rebel delegation.

He said he hoped the deal would "pave the way for a serious national political dialogue aiming at reaching a lasting peace in South Sudan," the world's newest nation which only won independence from Khartoum in 2011.

Government negotiator Nhial Deng Nhial said the negotiations, which have been dragging on in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa for three weeks, were "not easy".

"We hope to be able to make haste towards an agreement that will end bloodshed," he said, but voiced scepticism over the ability of the rebels, comprised of renegade army units and ethnic militia, to halt their operations.

"What worries us is whether the agreement on the cessation of hostilities will stick (and) the capacity of the rebel group... to stop fighting," he added. "We would like to take this opportunity to urge the rebel group to heed the voice of reason and abandon the quest for political power through violence."

After initial clashes broke out in the capital Juba more than a month ago, the conflict rapidly escalated into all-out war between the regular army, who have been backed by Ugandan troops, and breakaway army units and other militia.

Jan Egeland, a former United Nations aid chief and now head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), on Thursday described the scale of the atrocities and war crimes - including the recruitment of child soldiers - as being as bad as those seen in Syria or Somalia.

"We're very, very concerned that there's more and more killings along ethnic lines," Egeland told AFP. "The gruesome slaughtering of defenceless civilians is as bad as in Syria, in Somalia, as elsewhere. The whole point here is that it can be avoided, it should be avoided, it must be avoided." The United Nations has said it is investigating widespread reports of atrocities and war crimes, including massacres, gang rapes and summary executions.