NAIROBI, Kenya - East African nations have approved a 5,500-strong military force for war-torn South Sudan to end weeks of bitter fighting that has devastated the young nation, Kenya's foreign minister said Wednesday.
Thousands have been killed and half a million civilians forced to flee the fighting between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels allied to his sacked deputy Riek Machar.
"The Security Council within IGAD has already adopted a resolution allowing 5,500 troops into South Sudan," Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed told reporters, referring to the seven-member Intergovernmental Authority on Development.
IGAD is mediating deadlocked talks in Ethiopia between the warring parties, to end a conflict in which the United Nations says atrocities have been committed, including mass killings, sexual violence and widespread destruction.
Uganda, an IGAD-member, has already sent troops to South Sudan on its own and taken a key role in the fighting in support of Kiir, and it was not clear if those soldiers would be included in the force.
Rebel chief Machar has demanded Kampala withdraw all forces, claiming Ugandan fighter jets have tried to kill him, and has questioned the neutrality of IGAD as a mediator.
A draft cessation of hostilities deal seen by AFP and put to delegates in Addis Ababa proposes an IGAD-led team to monitor the proposed deal on the ground.
Mohamed said the force would "support the monitoring and verification of cessation of hostilities, to ensure that peace and normalcy return to the Republic of South Sudan".
But she also said the force could be deployed "even before" a deal was agreed.
Mohamed said that Kenya -- which deployed troops in South Sudan to help evacuate citizens trapped in the fighting -- has been approached to send in troops as part of the force.
"Some countries have already agreed to send troops, others are considering," Mohamed said, initially saying Kenya would be willing to take part, but then later saying a decision had yet to be made.
The draft IGAD ceasefire accord presented to peace delegates meeting in Addis Ababa, notes the "scale of human suffering... with great loss of human life", since fighting broke out on December 15.
It also specifically highlights that both sides must "refrain" from attacking civilians, including summary executions, use of child soldiers as well as "rape, sexual abuse and torture".
Fighting has spiralled into ethnic killings between members of Kiir's Dinka people -- the country's largest group -- and Machar's Nuer. Many fear the conflict has spun out of the control of the politicians who sparked it.
An emergency regional summit of IGAD leaders planned for Thursday in Juba has been cancelled, but the same issues of striking a deal will be discussed at the African Union in Addis Ababa next week.
Regional nations approve military force for S.outh Sudan: Kenya