President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, a former vice president, met in the Ethiopian capital on Friday, shook hands and prayed together, and “agreed that immediately all hostile activities will stop within 24 hours.”
The rivals “agreed that a transition government offers the best chance to the people of South Sudan” with the promise of fresh elections for the world's youngest nation, said Seyoum Mesfin, head mediator with the East African regional bloc IGAD.
Both sides also “agreed to open humanitarian corridors ... and to cooperate with the U.N.” to ensure aid is delivered to the more than five million people in need, he added.
Military officials from both sides said frontlines appeared to be quiet ahead of the deadline to implement the truce.
The peace deal, which followed intense lobbying from world leaders and Washington slapping sanctions on senior military commanders, came amid new reports of war crimes committed by both sides and fears that a wave of ethnic killings could result in genocide.
The war has claimed thousands — and possibly tens of thousands — of lives, with more than 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.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in South Sudan earlier this month to push for peace, said the “agreement to immediately stop the fighting in South Sudan and to negotiate a transitional government could mark a breakthrough.”
“The hard journey on a long road begins now and the work must continue,” Kerry said in a statement, urging “both leaders to take immediate action now to ensure that this agreement is implemented in full and that armed groups on both sides adhere to its terms.”
'Mammoth aid effort' Needed
South Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP that the truce appeared to already be in place.
“As far as the information I have there are not any skirmishes today. The rebels are under Riek Machar and it was Riek Machar who declared war against the government,” he said, adding however that he feared “other forces not under the control of Riek Machar.”
British aid agency Oxfam, one of a handful of aid agencies working in worst-affected areas of the country, said the deal was a “timely breakthrough after months of dashed hopes.”
“Civilians caught up in this bloody conflict need to have full confidence that they can return to their homes without fear of violence,” said Cecilia Millan, head of Oxfam in South Sudan.
“They need to get back to their fields to plant their crops as soon as possible or they will lose the chance of feeding their families in the coming months,” she added, saying the country still needed a “mammoth aid effort.”
U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay said the two leaders must “stop the killing, before the fire they have ignited makes the entire country go down in flames.”
Pillay, a former head of the U.N. genocide court for Rwanda, said she recognized “many of the precursors of genocide” listed in a U.N. report on atrocities that was released during the week.
These included hate radio urging rape and “attacks on civilians in hospitals, churches and mosques, even attacks on people sheltering in U.N. compounds — all on the basis of the victims' ethnicity.”
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.
The conflict, which started as a personal rivalry between Kiir and Machar, has seen the army and communities divide along ethnic lines, pitting members of Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer.
The war broke out 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.