South Sudan President Salva Kiir (centre) and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni visit the John Garang Memorial during events marking the third anniversary of South Sudan's independence, in Juba. Picture: Andreea Campeanu

Juba -

South Sudan's warring leaders called on each other to restart peace talks on Wednesday, all the while trading blame for a raging civil war that marred independence celebrations in the world's youngest nation.

“Put down your guns and come home,” President Salva Kiir appealed to rebels, in a speech to mark three years of independence, before accusing his rival and former deputy, Riek Machar, of launching renewed attacks in the nearly seven-month-old civil war that has brought the nation to the brink of famine.

Thousands waved flags at military parades on Wednesday, despite having little to celebrate in a nation ravaged by ethnic atrocities.

Analysts say both sides believe the war is still winnable by force.

The streets of the capital were lined with banners proclaiming “One People, One Nation”, amid a show of force with a military parade and speeches to celebrate the breakaway from the repressive government in Khartoum.

Three ceasefire deals have failed to stick, and peace talks in luxury hotels in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa have made little progress.

Last month they halted indefinitely, with both sides refusing to attend the discussions, and blaming each other for the failure.

“If we don't stop war many of our people will continue to die,” Kiir said, while insisting he was “still committed” to the talks.

However, Kiir also dismissed rebel demands that Ugandan troops propping up his government leave the country, saying they will remain “until I am sure that we are safe and our institutions are protected”.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was one of the few senior regional leaders to attend, with old enemy Sudan sending its second vice-president.

US Secretary of State John Kerry urged South Sudan's leaders to show “courage and leadership” by halting the deadly violence.

“It is high time to honour fully the Cessation of Hostilities agreement of January 23 to end the violence, especially the violence being targeted against civilians,” Kerry said in a statement

The young nation has been wracked by war since mid-December, when presidential guards loyal to Kiir clashed with troops supporting Machar, who fled to the bush and rallied a huge rebel army.

Machar, speaking in the Ethiopian capital, said he was “ready to talk”, but he also lashed out at the “tyranny” of Kiir's government, and called for sanctions on the leaders in Juba.

Under Kiir, “our country witnessed nothing but dictatorship, anarchy, corruption, tribalism and lack of development”, Machar said.

At government-organised celebrations in the heart of the capital, dance troupes draped in the national flag sang and danced, as drummers banged out beats to shrug off the mood of gloom.

“Some people are not in a good mood... but I hope by next year all of us will be happy and we will celebrate together as citizens of one nation,” said Andrew Chol, 24.

“It's a sad anniversary,” admitted Juba resident Gideon, 23, saying he had hoped for better three years on from the fanfare and optimism that swept the country in July 2011.

The fighting has been marked by widespread atrocities against both members of the Nuer people, to which Machar belongs, and Kiir's Dinka group, the country's largest tribe.

Civilians have been massacred and dumped in mass graves, patients murdered in hospitals and churches, and entire towns flattened as urban centres, including key oil-producing hubs, changed hands several times.

The most conservative estimates put the toll at 10 000 dead, although aid workers say the real figure is likely far higher.

Almost 100 000 civilians are sheltering in squalid camps inside UN bases fearing revenge attacks if they leave.

Aid group Oxfam said South Sudan was “currently Africa's worst crisis with nearly four million - a third of the country's population - at risk of severe hunger and an aid effort that has only so far reached half of those in need”.

“The world's attention is elsewhere as Africa's worst humanitarian catastrophe descends into more misery. We will be staring into the abyss and fail to avert a famine if funds do not start arriving soon to help the people of South Sudan at risk of starvation, disease and violence,” said Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International chief.

“If the aid effort does not increase 50 000 children could die from malnutrition. Since the current crisis began in December last year fighting has forced 1.5 million people from their homes and numbers continue to rise.”

Kau Nak, the South's charge d'affaires in Khartoum, meanwhile said life-saving aid could move from Sudan to its former enemy.

The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on Tuesday for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to deliver food to northern South Sudan.

On the eve of the anniversary, the departing UN representative in South Sudan issued a scathing attack on the country's leaders, calling them a “self-serving elite” responsible for a looming “man-made famine”.

“Thousands and thousands have been killed,” said Hilde Johnson of the UN mission in South Sudan, lashing out at both the government and rebels, warning that one of world's least developed nations has “been set back decades”.

Leaders are sick with “the cancer of corruption” and the country's billions of dollars worth of oil are “a curse rather than a blessing”, she said.

Campaign group Global Witness said the government had borrowed the “monumental sum” of $1 billion this year from oil companies to “pay off last year's debts”, about the same amount the United Nations is appealing for donors to fund in terms of aid. - Sapa-AFP