Direct talks on a ceasefire between the warring parties in South Sudan failed to get under way on Sunday, with the two sides unable to agree on an agenda.

A key point of contention appears to be the demand by those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar that politicians arrested be released.

Michael Makuei, South Sudan’s Information Minister and a spokesman for the rival delegation of President Salva Kiir, said prisoners would be processed by the courts, and not released.

“There is no way we can be asked to release people who have been arrested and charged. They will be released in accordance with the laws of South Sudan,” said Mr. Makuei in Addis Ababa, where East African nations are struggling to initiate the face-to-face talks.

“The talks have not begun. The mediation team are still working on the technical details of the agenda. We are ready for the talks,” said Hussein Mar Nyuot, an opposition spokesman.

Speaking in Jerusalem, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said a negotiated political solution was the only way forward for South Sudan, the world’s newest nation.

“The United States remains deeply committed to supporting efforts that will bring this violence to an end,” said Mr. Kerry.

He said that talks were important but warned that they were only a first step.

“Negotiations have to be serious. They cannot be a delay, a gimmick in order to continue the fighting and try to find advantage on the ground at the expense of the people of South Sudan,” said Mr. Kerry.

“We will deny support and work to apply international pressure to any elements that attempt to use force to seize power,” he said.

The crisis in South Sudan has resulted in over 1,000 deaths and displaced nearly 200,000 people.

Fighting between army units loyal to Mr. Kiir and ethnic militias backing Mr. Machar has continued in Jonglei and Unity states, and sporadic gunshots were heard in the capital Juba on Saturday evening.

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