Addis Ababa: South Sudan`s president and rebel chief prepared Friday to meet for the first time since brutal civil war broke out nearly five months ago, amid international pressure to stem bloodshed and avert famine and genocide.
The expected talks, taking place after intense lobbying from world leaders with Washington slapping sanctions on senior military commanders, come a day after the UN warned crimes against humanity had likely be carried out in the still raging conflict.
President Salva Kiir arrived Friday in the Ethiopian capital, where he is slated to meet his former vice president turned arch rival, rebel chief Riek Machar.
Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters he hoped the meeting "would bring peace" with a ceasefire in tatters ever since it was signed in January.
But a spokesman for Machar, who had swapped his military fatigues for a business suit when he arrived in Addis Ababa late Thursday from his rebel base in South Sudan, said the two leaders would be unlikely to meet immediately.
Both are first holding talks with top mediator, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
"I don`t think Riek Machar and Salva Kiir will meet directly today," Machar`s spokesman James Gadet Dak told AFP.
While both leaders speak of peace, fierce fighting still rages and the United Nations has warned of the risk of severe famine and genocide.
The rebel`s military spokesman Lul Ruai Koang claimed heavy clashes Friday in three states, including the key oil-producing areas.
"Our leaders are here in Addis Ababa to find a peaceful political settlement...but the government is propagating war," Koang said. "Juba doesn`t believe in a political solution, they believe in a military option."
However, government army spokesman Philip Aguer said the last reports of fighting he had were from late Thursday, in battles around the contested town of Bentiu, which has been largely destroyed as it has repeatedly swapped hands between the two sides.A UN peacekeeping mission report released Thursday said that "fighting continues with little hope that civilians will see any respite from the relentless violence."
Warning of "countless" gross human rights violations, the UN report said "there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity" have been carried by both sides.
UN rights chief Navi Pillay said Friday the two leaders "stop the killing, before the fire they have ignited makes the entire country go down in flames."
Pillay, a former head of the UN genocide court for Rwanda, said she recognised in the UN report "many of the precursors of genocide", with hate radio urging rape, and "attacks on civilians in hospitals, churches and mosques, even attacks on people sheltering in UN compounds - all on the basis of the victims` ethnicity."
The conflict, which started as a personal rivalry between Kiir and Machar, has seen the army divide along ethnic lines, pitting members of Kiir`s Dinka tribe against Machar`s Nuer.
The United States this week unveiled its first sanctions in response to the "unthinkable violence", targeting one military leader from each side.
The war has claimed thousands -- and possibly tens of thousands -- of lives, with over 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes.
Aid agencies are warning that South Sudan is now on the brink of Africa`s worst famine since the 1980s.
But as pressure builds to stem the brutal conflict, fears are growing that political leaders can no longer hold back their warring forces as communities spiral into cycles of revenge attacks.
Testimonies in a report this week by Amnesty International describe civilians including children executed by the side of the road "like sheep" and other victims "grotesquely mutilated" with their lips sliced off.
In one case, a woman who was three months pregnant was gang-raped by 14 men and then forced to watch as seven women who resisted being raped were killed as gunmen instead forced sticks into their vaginas.
"The longer ethnic rivalries are allowed to deepen and fester, the more fragmented South Sudan will become, making reconciliation and sustainable peace much more difficult to achieve," Amnesty warned.
The conflict erupted on December 15 with Kiir accusing Machar of attempting a coup. Machar then fled to the bush to launch a rebellion, insisting that the president had attempted to carry out a bloody purge of his rivals.