ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – South Sudan's warring factions held preliminary meetings Friday ahead of the official start of negotiations in neighboring Ethiopia, mediators said.
Dina Mufti, a spokesman for Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry, said the introductory meetings were necessary to bridge the groups' differences ahead of direct talks expected to start Saturday. The meetings are being held at Addis Ababa's Sheraton Hotel.
Meanwhile, both sides continue to fight in the world's newest country and the U.S. Embassy in Juba, the capital, said Friday the Department of State ordered a "further drawdown" of embassy personnel because of the "deteriorating security situation." An evacuation flight was being arranged Friday, the statement said.
South Sudan's government has declared a state of emergency in Unity and Jonglei, two states whose capitals are under rebel control. On Thursday the central government warned that rebels loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar were preparing to march to Juba from Bor, the capital of Jonglei state that has been the scene of fierce fighting between government troops and rebels.
South Sudan's military said Thursday it had sent reinforcements to Bor, 120 kilometers (74.57 miles) from Juba.
President Salva Kiir insists the fighting was sparked by a coup attempt mounted by soldiers loyal to Machar on Dec. 15. But that account has been disputed by some officials of the ruling party who say the violence began when presidential guards from Kiir's Dinka ethnic group tried to disarm those from the Nuer group of Machar. From there, violence spread across the country, with forces loyal to Machar defecting and seizing territory from loyalist forces.
South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension and a power struggle within the ruling party that escalated after Kiir dismissed Machar as his vice president in July. The rebels back Machar, who is now a fugitive sought by the military.
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal. Before that, the south fought decades of war with Sudan.