JUBA: South Sudan rejected rebel calls for an immediate release of detainees after the two sides met briefly for the first time on Tuesday seeking to end fighting that has left the world's newest state on the brink of civil war.
"They are destroying the whole process," Yohanis Musa Pauk, spokesman for the rebel delegation loyal to former vice president Riek Machar, told Reuters in Addis Ababa where the talks are being held.
"But we will not leave (the talks). We still have hope that they will come to their senses," he said after the government refused a key rebel demand for the release of 11 detained politicians allied to Machar.
Meetings in neighboring Ethiopia are aimed at brokering a ceasefire to halt three weeks of violence that has killed at least 1,000 people and driven 200,000 from their homes.
The fighting, often along ethnic faultlines, has pitted President Salva Kiir's SPLA government forces against the rebels loyal to Machar.
The talks opened on Tuesday but quickly took a break for consultations in Juba about the fate of the 11 detainees, arrested last year over an alleged coup plot. The rebels had initially demanded their release before the negotiations.
South Sudan's government chief negotiator, Nhial Deng Nhial, told a press conference in Juba that Kiir made it clear to a visiting team of east African envoys that the detainees would not be released immediately.
Kiir told the visitors that he would be happy to set the detainees free as long as the requisite legal processes have taken place, Nhial said, without elaborating.
Juba has maintained that the detainees will be investigated and those found culpable will face the due process of the law.
A diplomat close to the talks said the envoys were from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional grouping of east African nations that initiated the talks.
The trio of envoys is led by Seyoum Mesfin, a former Ethiopian foreign minister, the diplomat said.
Tuesday's brief meeting between government and rebel delegations in Addis Ababa was the first face-to-face session, after a formal opening ceremony on Saturday, due to delays caused by haggling over the detainees.
The talks were due to resume when the IGAD envoys returned to Addis, which is expected to be Wednesday because they would spend the night in Juba.
The fighting is the worst in South Sudan since it won independence from Sudan in 2011 in a peace deal that ended one of Africa's longest civil wars. The slow pace of the peace talks has unnerved foreign powers, who worry that South Sudan could spiral into full-blown civil war.