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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — South Sudan's government and rebels signed a cease-fire deal Thursday that leaders hope will put a pause to five weeks of warfare that has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians.
The peace deal represents the first real progress since political friction turned violent Dec. 15 — fueling countrywide battles with ethnic overtones. But questions were immediately raised as to whether all fighters in South Sudan would abide by the agreement, and how long others would follow it.
The military spokesman for South Sudan cautioned that a group of rebel fighters from the former vice president's Nuer ethnic group — thousands of armed youths known as the "White Army" — may not want peace.
"Riek Machar has been using that force to fight the SPLA, so we have to see what will happen," said Col. Philip Aguer, using the acronym for South Sudan's military.
"War is not god for anybody, especially war fought for power of a political position," Aguer continued. "Civilians, innocents are dying, so it is good for the people of South Sudan to have peace."
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney welcomed the deal, being called a "cessation of hostilities," describing it as a "first critical step in ending the violence" and building a sustainable peace. The U.S. expects both parties to implement the agreement fully and swiftly, he said, while urging both sides to move toward an inclusive dialogue.
"The United States will remain a steady partner to those who choose the path of peace" and work toward a more democratic, unified South Sudan, Carney said.
Talks are scheduled to resume in early February, but a sore point between the sides remains. Machar's side has been pushing to get 11 top former government leaders released from prison. President Salva Kiir has said the 11 will be subjected to South Sudan's judicial process.
The top negotiator for Machar's side, Taban Deng Gai, a general in South Sudan's army before he defected, said late Thursday that talks would not continue if the government does not release the 11 detainees. South Sudan's information minister, Michael Makuel Lueth, said the detainee issue has nothing to do with the cessation of hostilities agreement.
The United States helped broker talks that saw South Sudan end its civil war with Sudan in 2005 and then gain independence in 2011. Tepid progress by the world's newest country — and one of the globe's poorest — has been turned upside down by its near-civil war.
An estimated half million residents have fled their homes because of the fighting, which has often pitted Kiir's Dinka-led government and military against Nuer fighters backing Machar.
The U.N. has warned of atrocities committed by both sides on the battlefield, and the fighting has imperiled South Sudan's oil industry, after technical workers fled and rebel fighters took control of the fields for some time.
The U.N. on Thursday said it is protecting 76,000 civilians at eight bases in South Sudan. The U.N. mission, known as UNMISS, has received reports of fighting continuing in multiple locations in the country.
World Vision charity said the deal "could mean we finally have access to areas where children are in desperate need and have been trapped by the violence and cut off from aid."
The Enough Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group that works on Central Africa issues, said Thursday's deal is only the first step on a long road to a durable peace. The group said it was "far from guaranteed" that all combatants would lay down arms just because a deal was signed in Ethiopia.
"If an inclusive peace process is not constructed that seeks to address root causes, the conflict will continue, with deadly consequences," said John Prendergast, the group's co-founder. His group called for an inclusive dialogue, a commitment to accountability and security sector reform.
Associated Press reporters Ilya Gridneff in Juba, South Sudan, and Josh Lederman in Washington D.C. contributed to this report. Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.