JOHANNESBURG – A cease-fire began at midnight Saturday in South Sudan as a weary nation wondered whether this latest attempt to end a five-year civil war would hold.
President Salva Kiir and rival Riek Machar agreed on the "permanent" cease-fire on Wednesday in Sudan after their first face-to-face talks in almost two years. They had faced a possible U.N. arms embargo and sanctions if fighting didn't stop and a political deal wasn't reached by Saturday.
Multiple attempts at peace have failed, and the latest cease-fire in December was violated within hours, to the growing frustration of the international community. Both Kiir and Machar this week ordered their supporters to observe the latest agreement as of Saturday.
The civil war that erupted between supporters of Kiir and his then-deputy Machar in late 2013, just two years after South Sudan won independence from Sudan, has killed tens of thousands and created Africa's largest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Both sides have been accused of ethnic violence and atrocities such as gang-rapes.
Millions are near famine. The new peace deal calls for the unhindered delivery of aid in one of the world's most dangerous countries for humanitarian workers, as well as the withdrawal of forces and the release of prisoners of war.
Wary observers inside and outside the country, including the warring sides, approached the latest cease-fire with cautious optimism at best.
A joint statement by the United States, Britain and Norway on Friday warned that effects of the halt in fighting must be seen on the ground: "It must lead to improved security for communities and an end to the horrendous abuses endured by civilians at the hands of security forces."
And despite the cease-fire, the statement said, "we will continue to seek measures at the U.N. Security Council to return the region to peace and security, including consequences for spoilers to the peace process."
The latest talks between South Sudan's rivals have yet to agree on a power-sharing deal, as the government last week rejected the idea of Machar again becoming Kiir's deputy.
A 2015 peace agreement brought back Machar as vice president but the deal collapsed in July 2016 when fresh fighting erupted in the capital, Juba, with Machar fleeing the country on foot through the bush into Congo.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.
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