Teams representing the government and rebels linked with former vice president Riek Machar are due to meet at a hotel in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, but a United Nations (UN) deadline has already been missed.
The world’s newest country – and one of Africa’s major crude oil exporters – has been rocked by fierce clashes since last month when President Salva Kiir accused former ally Machar of plotting a coup against his regime – something the latter has denied.
Some key oil-producing states are said to still remain out of government control, while control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, has changed hands several times since fighting began in mid-December.
On Wednesday, Kiir declared a state of emergency in the states of Jonglei and Unity.
The UN had set a deadline of 31 December for the two parties to talk. The teams were due to begin talks in Addis Ababa later on Thursday.
The government said recently it was willing to enter negotiations with Machar so long as there were no conditions attached. Machar was reportedly unwilling to open talks until the government released several detained politicians – something the Juba administration said it would do, before seemingly reneging amid a stalemate in the crisis.
South Sudan, which only gained independence from Sudan in 2011 and took with it three-quarters of the original country’s oil reserves, has shut about one-fifth of its production since fighting began.
Many international oil companies have evacuated staff from fields in the more restive states, including Malaysia’s Petronas and ONGC Videsh (OVL), the overseas arm of India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corporation.
A meeting held in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi in late December involved leaders from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an organisation formed of seven Horn of Africa nations: Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Djibouti and Somalia.
The leaders have urged both sides to implement a ceasefire and begin negotiations. Regional leaders have already given their backing to Kiir, saying they will not support any attempt to overthrow him.