African Union summit ponders violent conflicts

January 30, 2014 - 11:35 AM
Ethiopia African Union Summit

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, center left, joins President of the Republic of the Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso, center right, and other African presidents and heads of government as they pose for a group photograph during the opening session of the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014. African leaders met in Ethiopia Thursday at a summit to discuss outbreaks of violence in South Sudan and Central African Republic, as well as food security across the continent. (AP Photo/Elias Asmare)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — African leaders are meeting in Ethiopia Thursday at a summit to discuss outbreaks of violence in South Sudan and Central African Republic, as well as food security across the continent.

Opening the African Union summit Thursday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said he was "deeply concerned by the emergence of new conflicts" that threaten Africa's collective peace and stability. The summit is being attended by 34 African leaders.

Africa's violent conflicts often force many people to flee their homes, leaving them unable to grow their own food and totally aid-dependent. In South Sudan, where violence since mid-December has displaced more than 700,000 people, the United Nations estimates that 3.7 million people — more than a third of the country's population — are now severely food-insecure. In Central African Republic, nearly 1 million people have been displaced around the country by sectarian violence pitting Muslims against Christians.

Often accused of responding sluggishly toward crises, the African Union —with members from 54 of the continent's 55 states — appears to be taking steps toward more robust action in the face of sudden outbreaks of violence. There is plan now to have in place what is being called an African Union standby force — troops who would be ready to deploy during emergency situations.

Hailemariam, the Ethiopian leader, called for an end to "senseless violence" in Central African Republic and urged South Sudan's warring factions to reach a negotiated settlement.

"We need to find urgent solutions to rescue these two sisterly countries from falling into the abyss," he said. "Failure to do so will have serious implications for peace and security in the region and indeed the whole continent."

The United States is also urging both sides in South Sudan's conflict to reach a political solution that could to lead to a more durable peace. Last week both sides reached a ceasefire deal, bringing a halt to heavy fighting even though sporadic clashes have been reported. On Wednesday seven of the 11 South Sudanese leaders detained for alleged treason were freed and flown to Kenya. The U.S. is urging South Sudan's government to free the remaining detainees.

"The cessation of hostilities agreement provides an opportunity, but still it is a fragile one," said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who is attending the African Union summit in Addis Ababa. "The leaders should move to solve the problem on the round table. The other choice is mistrust and conflict."

The U.N. has accused both sides of committing atrocities. The fighting has imperiled South Sudan's oil industry, after technical workers fled and rebel fighters took control of the fields. The government insists the violence was sparked by a failed coup attempt on Dec. 15 by soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. Machar denies the allegation but says President Salva Kiir is a dictator who should be removed from power.

Peace talks are set to resume early next month in Ethiopia, after mediators travel to South Sudan to try to put in place a mechanism to monitor the ceasefire agreement. Seyoum Mesfin, an Ethiopian diplomat who is one of two mediators appointed by the regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, said Thursday that the ceasefire still holds despite "skirmishes here and there."

___

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