ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Rebels badly damaged petroleum facilities in an oil-producing state and must answer for the destruction, a South Sudanese government official said Sunday.
Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth said the government is now in full control of Unity State after its forces took over the capital, Bentiu, from forces loyal to former vice president Riek Machar on Friday.
The crisis in South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, started with tension after President Salva Kiir dismissed Machar and other high ranking politicians from Cabinet in July. The tension culminated in fighting that broke out on Dec. 15 and descended into ethnic attacks.
Kiir, who is an ethnic Dinka, accused a former vice president, who is an ethnic Nuer, of trying to overthrow the government. Machar denies the accusation, and accuses the government of crushing political opponents.
Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have been displaced in the nearly monthlong conflict. The U.N. has said that more than 1,000 people are believed to have been killed.
The U.S. Special envoy to South Sudan Donald Booth said Sunday that mediators in peace talks for South Sudan being held in Ethiopia had made some progress trying to secure a cease-fire agreement between the rebels and government.
Booth said mediators conferred with Machar on Saturday for three hours in efforts to get to him to sign an agreement to end hostilities.
"He still has some concerns, but I think we have made some progress. His particular concern was the benefit he will (get) out of a ceasefire agreement," Booth said.
He said mediators will push the South Sudanese government to release the 11 high ranking leaders of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement that are in detention in Juba.
Machar also raised an issue about Ugandan military intervention in South Sudan, Booth said.
"We will continue to push the government to allow the detainees to take part in the peace talks in Addis. There are a number of ideas being discussed to bring the detainees to the talks. It continues to be discussed and refined," Booth said.
He added the participation of the detainees in the peace talks is critical for the talks in Ethiopia to go forward.
However, Lueth, told journalists at the Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa on Sunday morning that the release of political detainees should not be a condition for the cessation of hostilities.
"Even the detainees have distanced themselves away from the rebellion. They have said their detention should not be an obstacle for the signing of a cessation of hostilities agreement," he said.
The information minister, however, expressed his optimism that there will be a cessation of hostilities agreement within the coming few days.
"At the moment, we are not ready to listen to any preconditions for the signing of a cessation of hostilities agreement," Lueth said.