By NICHOLAS KULISH and BENNO MUCHLER
January 23, 2014[NAIROBI] — The government of South Sudan and rebels loyal to the country’s ousted former vice president signed a cease-fire agreement on Thursday, holding out the prospect of peace after more than a month of fighting that has torn the new nation apart.
Under the agreement, signed in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, both sides in the conflict promised to lay down their arms. But they have also said that a cessation of hostilities would be a temporary measure, short of a formal peace agreement, and that negotiations would have to continue.
While humanitarian groups welcomed the cease-fire as an opportunity to restore stability, political analysts urged restraint, saying that a cease-fire was only the first step in bringing an end to a civil war that has killed thousands and displaced more than half a million South Sudanese.
“We have to be very cautious,” said Zacharia Diing Akol, director of training at the Sudd Institute, an independent research group in the South Sudanese capital, Juba. “Today is just going to be the first step toward stopping violence, but the long and arduous process of real negotiations are going to begin.”
In addition to ending military operations, the agreement said both two sides must “refrain from taking any actions that could lead to military confrontations, including all movement of forces, ammunition resupply or any other action that could be viewed as confrontational.” The agreement also calls for a monitoring and verification team to be set up.
The cease-fire was scheduled to begin 24 hours after the signing. “We promise total cooperation in the monitoring and verification mechanism that we urge the special envoys to quickly set in motion,” said Nhial Deng Nhial, the head of the South Sudanese government delegation.
In a statement on Thursday night, President Obama called the agreement “a critical first step” toward an “inclusive political dialogue to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict.”
Refugees, many of them unaccompanied children, have streamed across the border by the tens of thousands into Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. Nearly 70,000 people are sheltering at United Nations bases in South Sudan, afraid that they will be killed either by crossfire or in targeted attacks.
“The world’s newest nation, plagued by conflict for the past month, has today been given a second chance,” José Barahona, Oxfam’s country director for South Sudan, said in a statement.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, called for both sides to do whatever they could so the displaced could receive humanitarian aid.
Neighboring countries and global powers, including the United States, China and the United Nations, placed significant pressure on the parties to reach an agreement, fearing that the fighting could escalate into a protracted civil war or even a wider regional conflict. Ugandan troops have been fighting alongside government forces, helping to push back the rebels.
The South Sudanese government of President Salva Kiir and the rebels had difficulty finding common ground, in particular on the question of the release of prisoners who support the former vice president, Riek Machar. Negotiators spent weeks at the luxury Sheraton hotel in Addis Ababa, trying to reach a deal that could bring an end to the fighting.
In his statement, Mr. Obama said that “the full participation of political detainees currently being held by the government of South Sudan will be critical” to future negotiations.
The conflict began on Dec. 15 with a clash at a military barracks in Juba. Mr. Kiir accused his rival, Mr. Machar, of staging a coup attempt. Mr. Machar denied it and fled to the bush. Forces loyal to Mr. Machar, who was ousted as vice president in July, took up arms against the government. Fighting between the two sides quickly escalated; state capitals including Bor, Malakal and Bentiu have changed hands repeatedly, with heavy casualties for civilians as well as combatants.
Taban Deng Gai, head of the opposition’s delegation, said that his side did not take part in an attempted coup and was not responsible for the hostilities. He called for the immediate release of detained opposition members. “We believe our comrades who are still languishing in jail are prisoners of their political convictions,” he said. He demanded “their release to join the next stage of comprehensive and inclusive national political dialogue.”
Mr. Nhial, the head of the government delegation, said that the true test would be whether the rebels could live up to their promise to stop hostilities. Neither side is considered very disciplined. The rebels include armed civilians, and it is unclear how much control Mr. Machar exercises over them.
The Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia, Xie Xiaoyan, characterized the process as “20 days of hard negotiations with some agonizing and worrying moments.”
David Kwol Deng, research director of the South Sudan Law Society, said that a new approach was needed to replace the short-term thinking that had characterized previous deals.
“Until people see that leaders are held accountable, there’s no way to buy into the idea of a new nation in South Sudan,” he said. “We’ll just remain a bunch of communities that are all protecting themselves.”
“If we want sustainable peace, we have to dig deep and face some of the problems the country has been dealing with for the last nine years,” Mr. Deng said. “That can’t be done just with the signatures of the two parties involved.”