Exiled rebel leader Riek Machar has arrived in South Sudan’s capital for expected talks with President Salva Kiir, a meeting seen as an important step towards the implementation of a stalled peace deal.
Machar’s rare visit to Juba, the first in a year, comes before a November deadline to form a power-sharing government, a key part of the pact signed by the two rivals last year to end the country’s ruinous civil war.
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The roll-out of the accord, however, has been delayed by disputes.
“The meeting aims at discussing the outstanding issues related to the implementation of the R-ARCSS (peace deal) with President Kiir and other head of the parties to the agreement,” Machar’s director for information, Puok Both Baluang, said.
“It will be a two-day visit,” he added.
Pictures posted on social media showed Machar – accompanied by powerful Sudanese General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti – being welcomed by a delegation at Juba’s airport.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country in 2011 when it split from Sudan after decades of civil war. But two years later, it was plunged into its own conflict after Kiir accused Machar, whom he had previously sacked from his post as vice president, of plotting a coup against him.
Troops loyal to the two men clashed in Juba that December and ethnically charged fighting soon spread to other parts of the country, shutting down oil fields, forcing millions to flee and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Several attempts at peace have since failed but in September 2018, under pressure from international and regional powers, the warring parties signed an agreement to form a unity government.
The deal allowed Machar to return from exile abroad, but he has since gone to Juba just once, in October last year, to celebrate the signing of the accord.
The power-sharing arrangements under the peace deal were supposed to take effect in May. But the process was delayed by six months until November as both sides disagreed over the terms.
A key provision of the peace deal is the integration of former rebels in the army, which has still not occurred.
But as the November deadline approaches, the rivals have again come under pressure to meet.
Kiir has not been seen with Machar since the pair met in the Vatican in April when Pope Francis stunned the world by kissing the feet of two men accused of responsibility for heinous war crimes.