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South Sudanese cease-fire brings hope, skepticism for conflict's end

After five years of civil war, opposing factions in South Sudan signed a cease-fire on Wednesday that could eventually resolve the conflict. Some are skeptical if the deal will hold, however, given that previous agreements have collapsed.

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South Sudan President Salva Kiir (l.), Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir (c.), and South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar hold hands after signing a peace agreement aimed to end a war in which tens of thousands of people have been killed, on June 27, 2018 in Khartoum, Sudan.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

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South Sudan's warring parties on Wednesday agreed to a permanent cease-fire to take effect in 72 hours, as long-suffering citizens wondered whether this latest attempt at peace would fall apart as well.

South Sudan's government confirmed the deal was signed after face-to-face talks between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar in Sudan. The discussions followed their meeting last week in Ethiopia, their first in nearly two years.

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The new agreement also calls for the opening of corridors for humanitarian aid, the release of prisoners, and the withdrawal of forces. The African Union and East African regional bloc are asked to provide forces to oversee the cease-fire. South Sudan in the three years ahead also will prepare for elections. Meanwhile Sudan and South Sudan will "immediately rehabilitate the oil fields" central to the economy, which has largely collapsed.

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Tens of thousands have been killed in South Sudan's five-year civil war, which erupted two years after independence from Sudan and has created Africa's largest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide and left millions near famine. Multiple attempts at peace deals have failed in the past, and the United States, the country's top humanitarian donor, has grown increasingly frustrated.

The two sides expressed mixed emotions shortly after the agreement.

"This is the president signing, so everyone in the government will have to implement it," said government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny. "We're very happy with this deal."

Expect a power-sharing agreement in the next couple of weeks, Mr. Ateny said.

Meanwhile, opposition spokesman Mabior Garang said there was no guarantee the cease-fire will work. "However, the involvement of the region is more serious now. We are cautiously optimistic."

The latest cease-fire in December was violated within hours.

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The new talks are being mediated by the East African regional bloc and its leaders, with Ethiopia's new prime minister inviting Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar last week for the first round and an awkward embrace. South Sudan's government emerged saying it rejected the idea of having Machar return as Kiir's deputy under a power-sharing deal, and the opposition rejected the "imposition" of a deal.

The two sides, however, agreed to meet again this week in Sudan and are set to hold further talks in Kenya.

Some South Sudanese were wary of the new peace deal.

"There should be no celebration yet," conflict analyst Jacob Chol told The Associated Press. Sudan's involvement in the deal comes from its interest in South Sudan's oil fields, he said.

While the agreement is a welcome step, "the culture of signing agreement today and violating it tomorrow" should stop immediately, the Juba-based Community Empowerment for Progress Organization said in a statement. It urged the warring sides to issue official cease-fire orders to their fighters in advance, something they failed to do in December.

Pressure is growing from the international community to end the fighting for good amid watchdogs' allegations that some South Sudanese officials are profiting from the conflict and blocking the path to peace.

Meanwhile, concerns grow over the fracturing of the armed opposition as some observers wonder whether a peace agreement will be accepted by all.

The United Nations Security Council early this month adopted a US-sponsored resolution that threatens an arms embargo on South Sudan and sanctions against six people, including the country's chief of defense, if fighting doesn't stop and a political agreement reached. It asked the UN secretary-general for a report by Saturday.

This week the new US ambassador to South Sudan, Thomas Hushek, told the AP in an interview that the US was skeptical of the latest talks. "If it's just a repeat of the failed 2015 agreement [that returned Machar to his role as Kiir's deputy] it's not going to work," he said.

That agreement collapsed when fresh fighting erupted in the capital, Juba, in July 2016, with Machar fleeing the country on foot through the bush. He was later put under house arrest in South Africa. East Africa's leaders last week announced that he can relocate anywhere but their countries.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.