LUANDA, Angola (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday he expects peace talks for South Sudan to begin as planned, despite reluctance by the top rebel leader, who has called immediate negotiations premature and meaningless.
Speaking to reporters in the Angola capital before heading back to the United States, Kerry also sharpened the threat of sanctions or deploying new U.N. troops to South Sudan should the talks fall through.
Rebel leader Riek Machar has told reporters that he does not see the point of peace talks that would lead to a transitional government before elections. Kerry said he was aware of the comments but insisted Machar did not reject the talks outright.
"He left the door open," Kerry said of Machar. "He expressed some doubts, but he didn't say he wouldn't go."
Kerry said the rebel leader, South Sudan's former vice president, "has a fundamental decision to make. If he decides not to and procrastinates then we have a number of different options that are available to us. We said we are serious and there will be accountability and implications if people do not join into this legitimate effort."
Meanwhile, South Sudan's military wrested a base and a town from rebel control in a violent counteroffensive just days after South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, agreed to participate in the talks. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki strongly condemned the offensive by Kiir's troops, which she said was in violation of a ceasefire agreement.
South Sudan has been rocked by violence since December, when Kiir accused Machar of staging a coup. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed and 1 million people have fled their homes. A peace deal signed in January has failed. The violence is increasingly taking on an ethnic dimension between Kiir's Dinka community and Machar's Nuer community.
Rebel fighters from the Nuer ethnic group took control of Bentiu in mid-April and slaughtered non-Nuer civilians in the town mosque, the hospital and on streets, leaving "piles and piles" of bodies, the U.N.'s top aid official, Toby Lanzer said. The U.N. Security Council expressed "horror" at the massacre.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq reported that the U.N. Mission in South Sudan said there was fighting in various parts of the country over the weekend that continued into Monday.
In Bentiu, the mission reported heavy fighting between government troops from the Sudan People's Liberation Army and opposition soldiers, including near the U.N. base where some 23,000 civilians who fled their homes have sought protection, he said.
"After the mission engaged with both warring sides, forces left the area last evening," Haq said. "However, fighting resumed again earlier today close to the base with heavy and small arms fire."
Haq said the U.N. reinforced security around the camp's perimeter but the mission reported that a 4-year-old girl hit by a stray bullet inside the camp had died from her injuries.
AP reporter Edith Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.