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Acrimonious opening at restart of S. Sudan talks

Updated Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 | 11:47 a.m.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — A resumption of peace talks to end South Sudan's violence and political impasse appears to be in peril, as members of the two sides exchanged bitter accusations late Tuesday ahead of what is supposed to be the start of new talks.

South Sudan descended into chaos in mid-December as fighting broke out between troops loyal to the government and rebels who support the former vice president. Thousands were killed in violent rampages that often took on an ethnic dimension.

A cease-fire was agreed to last month and more advanced talks were scheduled to resume on Monday. That did not happen. A ceremony was held Tuesday in hopes of starting talks, but the forum was used to trade accusations.

South Sudan's negotiator said rebels are violating last month's cease-fire. On the rebels' part, Gen. Taban Deng Gai said he is disappointed in South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Uganda is an ally of Kiir's government and has sent in hundreds of troops.

"The withdrawal of foreign armed forces has not been honored," Gai said, referencing a component of the cease-fire. "They are acting like a new colonist in the country. Musevini is looking for a prolonged civil war South Sudan. This is a very selfish motive."

A rebel spokesman said earlier Tuesday that rebels won't return to talks unless high-level political detainees are allowed to attend and Ugandan troops leave. The spokesman, Yohanis Pouk, said seven political detainees now in Kenya and four in South Sudan aren't being allowed to attend the talks in Ethiopia.

Uganda has sent military hardware and troops to fight alongside South Sudanese government troops in at least three states, including two that produce oil. Ugandan troops would withdraw from South Sudan only if that was the wish of the country's government, Okello Oryem, Uganda's deputy foreign minister, said Tuesday.

"We have a bilateral agreement with the legitimate government of South Sudan, which invited us to South Sudan under a security pact," he said. "This is an African problem that needs an African solution."

Museveni defended the deployment of troops to South Sudan, saying it was necessary to prevent violence from escalating in the world's newest country.

The U.S. has called for Uganda to withdraw its troops. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the U.S. is making diplomatic efforts to prevent "the chaos and the genocide that too often comes of the violence that can occur if things break down."

South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 after more than 20 years of civil war. The U.S. helped broker the 2005 peace deal that preceded South Sudan's independence vote.

Another complicating factor to a resumption of talks was a new demand by the political detainees to enter the peace talks not on the side of the former vice president, Riek Machar, but as a new, third group, said Seyoum Mesfin, the mediator of the talks and an official with a bloc of nations from East Africa known as IGAD.

Seyoum at Tuesday's ceremonial opening blamed South Sudan's leaders for failing to prevent the conflict.

"Disillusionment with corruption and inadequate governance was high," Seyoum said. "The leadership has failed to see this and to respond with a coherent policy and visible commitment to address the issue of peace, security and development in a coordinated manner."

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Associated Press reporter Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to this report.