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One of the world's newest nation's might be headed for a famine unless rival political factions can reach a peace deal to end ethnic fighting. In South Sudan, more than a million people need to be allowed to return to their homes and they need access to aid. That's the message U.S. diplomats have been sending. South Sudan's president was here in Washington this week for the African Leaders Summit. NPR's Michele Kelemen caught up with him, and as she found, he's trying to downplay those dire warnings.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: South Sudan's president doesn't like how his country is being portrayed here in Washington. Salva Kiir dismisses UN estimates that seven million people are at risk of hunger and disease.
PRESIDENT SALVA KIIR MAYARDIT: They are wrong completely. Seven million people out of aid. That means that the whole country is starving.
KELEMEN: Kiir says there are areas that need help, and he insists that his government is ready to work with international aid groups to reach them, but when it comes to advice on how he should run the country, Salva Kiir is sounding frustrated with those who he says are siding with rebels and trying to push him aside.
MAYARDIT: That was the music that people were dancing to - regime change. So I was telling the Americans that it is very strange for me to see American supporting a military coup when you are a democratic country, and you want everybody to establish democracy.
KELEMEN: None of that tension was on display, though, when Kiir sat down for talks this week with Secretary of State John Kerry who said he wanted to set the record straight about who is to blame for the latest cease-fire violations, Kiir's rival, Riek Machar.
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JOHN KERRY: It is our judgment - and the former vice president, Mr. Machar, needs to understand this - that it was his initiative that broke the agreement and took his troops back into a violent status.
KELEMEN: As he met reporters today, Kiir was wearing his trademark black cowboy hat, this one a gift, he says, from Secretary Kerry. He said it was only recently that Kerry and other U.S. officials started blaming the rebels for the ongoing violence in South Sudan. Across town, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth was painting a very different picture. He was recently jailed by Kiir's government, and now represents the opposition. And Gatkuoth has plenty of friends here from his days as South Sudan's first ambassador to Washington.
EZEKIEL LOL GATKUOTH: This is my first visit to U.S. after my release. Everybody wanted to see me, especially the friends of South Sudan in the Congress and also in the NGO's and the think tank organizations and also in the U.S. government
KELEMEN: South Sudan wouldn't be a country, he says, without U.S. support. But he says Salva Kiir is turning away from Washington and looking to China.
GATKUOTH: Salva just bought arms from China. He's getting money from China. He's looking east now, as we speak.
KELEMEN: And Gatkuoth says he thinks the people of South Sudan don't trust Kiir anymore.
GATKUOTH: For South Sudan to heal - for South Sudan to reconcile - for South Sudan to develop again, you cannot have Salva leading it.
KELEMEN: President Salva Kiir is making clear he's not going anywhere, though he's willing to negotiate on an interim government that could include Riek Machar.
MAYARDIT: It will be up to him to accept any offer that I give him, to come and participate in the government, or he stays out and then prepare himself for the coming elections.
KELEMEN: Diplomats hope the two sides can agree on a transitional government soon, though Kiir says the talks in Ethiopia are not going well. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.