South Sudan's warring leaders invited to meet next week

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — South Sudan's president and rebel leader have been invited to meet face-to-face next week for the first time in almost two years in an effort to end a five-year civil war.

An opposition statement on Wednesday welcomed the invitation by Ethiopia's prime minister for Riek Machar to meet with President Salva Kiir on June 20 and called it a "prudent and timely decision."

Machar fled South Sudan after new fighting erupted in the capital, Juba, in July 2016, ending a brief attempt at peace in which Machar had returned to his role as Kiir's deputy. Machar, who later was put under house arrest in South Africa, hasn't met with Kiir since then.

While South Sudan's government hasn't said whether the president will attend next week's proposed meeting, spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny called the invitation "significant" and told The Associated Press that "anything that brings peace in South Sudan is wanted."

The meeting would be mediated by the East African regional bloc that has led several rounds of failed peace talks. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development last month called for a meeting of Kiir and Machar ahead of an African Union summit on July 1 in Mauritania, saying it would inform a "final decision" on Machar's participation in the South Sudan peace process.

The new invitation comes as pressure grows on the warring sides to end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and created Africa's largest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Both sides have been accused of abuses against civilians, including along ethnic lines.

Early this month the U.N. Security Council adopted a United States-sponsored resolution that threatens an arms embargo on South Sudan and sanctions against six people, including the country's defense chief, if fighting doesn't stop and a political agreement reached. The resolution asks Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to report to the council on that by June 30.

Regional bloc IGAD also has threatened to submit "punitive measures" against violators of December's failed cease-fire in South Sudan, though sanctions would need approval by the bloc's heads of state and government.

Observers offered mixed views on next week's proposed meeting.

"The last time the two leaders agreed to work together under threat of U.S. sanctions, it ended in an explosion of fighting and Riek Machar fleeing for his life through the bush into Congo," said Alan Boswell, a South Sudan conflict analyst. "Now we have a new U.S. administration and it seems we want to try it all again."

The leader of a South Sudanese advocacy group, however, called the Ethiopia meeting a test of Kiir and Machar's responsibility to their country.

"The citizens and world are watching them. The only option they have is to compromise for reaching a peace deal," Edmund Yakani, director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, told the AP.

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