All talk but no peace in South Sudan

Addis Ababa - After 13 months of fighting and six failed ceasefires, diplomats are being forced to accept that any deal to end the war in South Sudan will, at best, result in a return to the status quo that precipitated the carnage in the first place.

The latest peace proposal drafted by regional bloc IGAD leaves Salva Kiir as president and re-installs rebel leader Riek Machar as his deputy, a position he held until July 2013 when his sacking planted the seed of a war that erupted five months later.

Hopes of formulating a comprehensive peace deal that addresses South Sudan's underlying problems and tribal divisions have faded.

Promises of peace

"That moment has passed," a European diplomat involved in the talks said.

"More and more it's moving towards an elite compromise, but at least that will stop the killing," said another Ethiopia-based diplomat.

Regional and international peace efforts have repeatedly squeezed out promises of peace from Kiir and Machar, but each one has been broken within days, if not hours.

South Sudan's Sudd Institute think-tank describes the talks as "frustratingly slow", gloomily recalling a "plethora" of deals that had been "subsequently dishonoured" by one side or the other.

"The two parties will sign anything to get out of Addis, but they have never given up on the idea of solving this on the battlefield," a diplomat said.

Earning a reputation as slow talkers and hard drinkers, the South Sudanese delegations at the European Union-funded talks held in luxury hotels in Ethiopia have already cost at least $22m, according to diplomatic sources.

Barbed wire

No overall death toll for the war has been kept by the government, rebels or the United Nations, but the International Crisis Group says it estimates that at least 50 000 people have been killed.

Half the country's 12 million people need aid, according to the United Nations, which is also guarding some 100 000 civilians trapped inside UN camps ringed with barbed wire, too terrified to venture out for fear of being killed.

The eight-member IGAD, which leads mediation efforts, has been partly stymied by internal divisions.

Kenya and Uganda are leery of imposing sanctions because both have important economic ties to South Sudan. Meanwhile, Uganda has troops in South Sudan to defend Kiir and Sudan is widely suspected of backing Machar.

More than two dozen armed forces - from ragtag militia, to rebels from neighbouring Sudan's Darfur region, to the Ugandan troops backing Kiir - are all now fighting.

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