ADDIS ABABA - South Sudan's president and rebel chief will meet for direct talks Friday in Ethiopia in a bid to stem a brutal civil war, mediators from the bloc of regional nations said Wednesday.
Mediators from the East African IGAD-bloc of nations said the "critical meeting will help end the violence and killings in South Sudan", and try to find a "political solution to the crisis," a statement read.
President Salva Kiir promised last week to attend peace talks, while rebel chief Riek Machar agreed on Tuesday to also come, although he has since said he may be delayed as he fled the capture of his former base by government troops into a remote bush area.
Both sides have been accused of widespread ethnic massacres, rape and recruitment of thousands of child soldiers.
Despite both leaders speaking of peace, fierce fighting continues for control of a key oil town in the north of the country.
Machar told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who visited the South Sudan capital Juba on Tuesday in a bid to push peace efforts amid dire warnings of the risk of famine, that he "will be present" at peace negotiations in the Ethiopian capital.
Sanctions on both sides
The United States on Tuesday unveiled its first sanctions in response to the "unthinkable violence" in the world's youngest nation, targeting one military leader from each side.
The move against presidential force commander Marial Chanuong and rebel general Peter Gadet follows a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Juba last week, where he called on both sides to lay down their arms.
South Sudan's foreign ministry spokesman Mayen Makol dismissed the sanctions as "unhelpful".
"The international community needs to help rather than imposing sanctions," Makol said.
The war has claimed thousands -- and possibly tens of thousands -- of lives, with over 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes. Almost five million are in need of aid, according to the UN.
"The conflict destroying this fragile young country is senseless," Ban said Tuesday, warning that if fighting continues one million people could soon face famine.
A January ceasefire was never enforced, while stop-start peace talks in Ethiopia have spent weeks squabbling over even just the basic agenda.
South Sudan Minister of Information Michael Makeui, head of the government delegation in Addis Ababa, said he was "optimistic for peace" but could not predict if talks would start on time, and how long they would take.
Aid agencies are warning that South Sudan is now on the brink of Africa's worst famine since the 1980s, while both Kerry and the UN human rights chiefs have spoken out over their fears that the country could slide towards a genocide.
Although starting as a personal rivalry between Kiir and Machar, the conflict has seen armies divide along ethnic lines and fighting pitting members of Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer.
The conflict erupted on December 15 with Kiir accusing Machar of attempting a coup. Machar then fled to the bush to launch a rebellion, insisting that the president had attempted to carry out a bloody purge of his rivals.