East African states agreed on Thursday to deploy troops in South Sudan by mid-April to help enforce a ceasefire deal between government forces and rebels, the chief mediator in peace talks between the two sides said.
South Sudan’s neighbors fear unrest in the world’s newest country could spill beyond its borders and destabilize a volatile region which has in recent years enjoyed strong economic growth.
At a summit in the Ethiopian capital, leaders from the regional bloc IGAD agreed to a force whose mandate would be “protection and deterrence”, an official said, including the protection of vital installations such as oilfields.
“These troops are envisaged to be on the ground by no later than mid-April,” Seyoum Mesfin, chief mediator of the peace talks between South Sudan’s feuding sides, told journalists.
Ethiopia, Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda will contribute troops while Djibouti is also expected to join, he said.
All except Rwanda already contribute to the 22,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia which is battling al Qaeda-linked militants.
Rwanda has sent peacekeepers to the Sudanese region of Darfur and Central African Republic.
The bloc’s decision comes at a time when peace talks have been making little headway towards ending more than two months of fighting in the oil-producing country.
Seyoum criticized both sides for dragging their feet in implementing the ceasefire, and said the bloc hoped to deploy at least a smaller contingent by mid-April.
“Whatever we get we will send on the ground. If we get a hundred, two hundred, a thousand, one thousand five hundred, they should be on the ground,” he said.
“We should not wait until all the countries prepare and tell you that they will send.”
Thousands of civilians have been killed in the violence.
The negotiations, meant to thrash out a deal on political reform after a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar sparked the unrest, are now due to resume on March 20.