JUBA, South Sudan – The leaders of South Sudan's two warring sides are likely to meet face to face this week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during a visit to the country on Tuesday.
Ban said that President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar — the leader of the country's rebel fighters — each told him that they plan to be in Ethiopia later this week. Ethiopia's prime minister is to facilitate the meeting.
Face-to-face talks between the two protagonists behind South Sudan's descent into chaos would be the country's most significant political progress since fighting began in December. A meeting between the leaders was sought after by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry when he visited South Sudan last week.
Thousands of people have died in violence that is frequently ethnic in nature. More than 1.3 million people have fled their homes, and aid workers fear a famine could break out if residents are not able to plant crops this month.
"Fighting must end. Much damage has already been done. It may take long to heal," Ban said. "The country's leaders must close the wounds they have opened. They must support justice and accountability for the crime committed and they must act to address the root causes of the conflict."
The U.N. leader added: "That will take courage, wisdom and state measure."
Ban visited one of Juba's refugee camps and spoke with residents there. He said the scenes broke his heart and enraged his soul. "People should not have to live in such conditions fearing for their lives," he said.
While standing at Ban's side, Kiir announced that he would meet Machar in Addis Ababa. Ban also spoke on the phone with Machar, who told him he would try his best to be there by Friday.
In the Juba refugee camp, residents complained that their homes flood when it rains. Resident Simon Galuak, said that Kiir's Dinka ethnic group is targeting Machar's Nuer tribe.
"We want to tell the international community that we, the Nuer people, have been signed out to be killed. Salva Kiir has singled us out to be killed. We elected him but he is now killing us. We want Ban Ki-moon to tell him to stop killing us," Galuak said.
U.N. officials say that atrocities have been committed by both sides. Nuer fighters are accused of slaughtering hundreds of people in the contested city of Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity state.
The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday it is seeing a sharp increase in the number of refugees fleeing to western Ethiopia.
Over the past 72 hours some 11,000 people have crossed into Burubley along Baro River, which divides the two countries, after South Sudan government forces captured a key rebel stronghold of Nasir, said U.N. refugee agency spokesman Adrian Edwards.
Many more refugees are massed on the South Sudanese side of the border, waiting to cross the river on one of the few small ferry boats, Edwards told reporters in Geneva.
It's that kind of mass movement of people that could bring famine to the region. The country director of the aid group Oxfam, Cecilia Millan, said Tuesday that millions of people will face hunger in coming months if the fighting does not end soon.
Associated Press reporters Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya and John Heilprin in Geneva, Switzerland contributed to this report.