South Sudan's President Salva Kiir said on Friday he was ready for face-to-face talks with rebel leader Riek Machar to try and end months of fighting in the world's newest nation, but his rival held off from promising to take part.
Kiir spoke hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met him in South Sudan's capital Juba to urge him to help end the conflict - part of a diplomatic push by Western and African powers who fear it could tip into full-blown ethnic slaughter and destabilize an already fragile region.
"In the interest of peace in our country, I am willing and ready for face-to-face talks with Machar," Kiir was quoted as saying in a statement released by the government of Kenya, where he flew to brief his regional counterparts after meeting Kerry.
Thousands have been killed and more than 1 million people have fled their homes since fighting erupted in December between troops backing Kiir and soldiers loyal to Machar, his sacked deputy.
The violence, which broke out after a long political rivalry between the two men, quickly spread to areas including the oil-producing north, often along ethnic lines between Kiir's Dinka people and Machar's Nuer.
A senior U.S. State Department official said a phone conversation Kerry held on Friday with Machar was inconclusive.
Machar "expressed openness to participating" in talks but did not commit during the call with Kerry, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Kerry, on his first visit as secretary of state to South Sudan, warned on Thursday that the increasingly ethnic violence could descend into genocide and said he expected the rapid deployment of more peacekeepers.
On Friday, he cited the risks of famine in South Sudan, decried reported recruitment of child soldiers and cited "appalling accounts of sexual violence."
"Before the promise of South Sudan's future is soaked in more blood, President Kiir and the opposition must work immediately for a cessation of hostilities and move towards an understanding about future governance of the country," Kerry told reporters in the South Sudanese capital Juba.
Delegations from both sides have been meeting in neighboring Ethiopia, but their talks have failed to advance since the January 23 signing of a ceasefire that never took hold.
Kerry said a meeting between Kiir and Machar, which would be their first face-to-face encounter since the conflict began, would be "critical" to finally implementing the ceasefire. He said such talks might take place as early as next week, though that was before he had spoken with Machar.