NAIROBI - South Sudan's warring leaders have agreed another deal aimed at ending six months of civil war but even if this one holds, analysts expect violence to get worse before the situation can improve.
After several failed deals, many are sceptical that either President Salva Kiir or his arch-rival Riek Machar really want a negotiated end to the conflict, and instead believe a military victory is still possible.
"This agreement was signed under great pressure, including from the region, but it will only stick if both Kiir and Machar perceive it to be in their best interests," said James Copnall, author of a recent book on South Sudan, "A Poisonous Thorn in our Hearts".
"The evidence of the last few months, during which both the government and the rebels have frequently broken the cessation of hostilities agreements they had signed, suggests it would be unwise to be too optimistic."
War in the young nation has already killed thousands and forced more than 1.3 million people from their homes.
But even if negotiations progress, some fear it will create further violence, as leaders jostle for power in a proposed transitional government which the enemies agreed a 60-day deadline to settle.
"Political movement forward is critical but there will be a fallout on the ground as well," said Casie Copeland from the International Crisis Group (ICG).
"There are concerns as negotiations progress towards a transitional government, that it will create extra instability on the ground, as each side seeks to weaken the other and shore up their own base," she said.
After heavy battles early in the year, when major towns were razed as they switched hands several times between government forces and rebels, the conflict appears to be settling down into a miserable low-level civil war.
"The last few months have shown how little either side cares for international rules of warfare, or for civilian lives," said Copnall.
"More conflict will mean more rapes, more murders, thousands more pushed towards starvation," he added.
- 'A familiar trap' -
Talks held in Addis Ababa have been repeatedly delayed, and sources said both sides openly scoffed that the 60-day deadline would be met.
The cost of holding talks has so far spiralled to over 17 million dollars (12 million euros), according to mediators.
They have offered some of their toughest warnings yet, although past threats of sanctions have had little if any impact.
"Any attempt to stand in the way of peace will have consequences," Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said.
David Deng from the Citizens for Peace and Justice, a coalition of over 40 civil society groups, said that the deal was only a tiny part of the peace effort needed.
"On the one hand it is a step in the right direction, but to be effective the process has to be broader than this political elite and engage with the people in South Sudan," Deng said, questioning how far militia forces really listen to Machar.
Forming a transitional government would require enemies responsible for what the UN fears could be crimes against humanity -- including massacres and mass rape - to now share power.
Human Rights Watch has warned that "peace without justice often fosters renewed cycles of violence," demanding that no amnesty be offered.
Pressure may be put upon both Kiir and Machar to step aside, at least until elections.
"It is difficult to imagine how South Sudan can be peaceful with either Kiir or Machar at or near the heart of power," Copnall said, admitting that "neither man is likely to agree to give up his ambitions."
Both men fought each other during the 1983-2005 civil war that paved the way for South Sudan's independence three years ago, when Machar became vice-president.
"South Sudan is caught in a familiar trap. The men who have committed atrocities are not willing to be tried for their crimes, yet they are the only ones who can agree to waive their de facto impunity," Copnall added.
But time is short. Aid agencies warn of the risk of famine should fighting continue, and cholera is spreading.
People "have been forced to endure too much in the past six months -- conflict, hunger and displacement -- it can't be allowed to go on any longer," Oxfam's South Sudan director Cecilia Millan said.
Leaders "need to start acting in the best interests of their people to prevent further devastation.".
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