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By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - South Sudan rebels have agreed to let Uganda maintain its forces on South Sudanese soil until a regional body deploys a peace keeping force, a spokesman for the Ugandan government told Reuters on Friday.
The new stance by the rebels, which is a 180-degree turn from their earlier position of demanding withdrawal of the troops from South Sudan, could open a way to mend ties between the insurgents and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
At least 10,000 people have been killed since fierce fighting erupted in December, pitting President Salva Kiir's government forces against supporters of Riek Machar, his former deputy and longtime rival.
Since the conflict in Africa's youngest nation erupted in mid December, the Ugandan leader has stood by the South Sudanese government, angering the rebels.
Peace initiatives by the regional group of nations, the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), have so far failed to end the conflict, fought along ethnic lines between Kiir's Dinka community and Machar's Nuer people.
Ofwono Opondo, the Ugandan government spokesman, said a rebel delegation in Uganda met a government team led by Salim Saleh, brother of President Museveni, who acts as his senior advisor on defence and security.
"We explained to them why we deployed in their country and they agreed that we can stay there until IGAD deploys," Opondo said. "They also agreed that a military option can not bring lasting peace in South Sudan."
Opondo said Ugandan officials explained to the visiting rebels that Uganda had not deployed its troops to take sides in the conflict, but rather it went "in to stop a genocide".
The rebels said they were encouraged by their meeting and that they recognised Uganda's influence on the South Sudanese leadership and its potential to help find a settlement.
"We believe it can play a positive role in influencing the GoRSS (Government of the Republic of South Sudan) to commit to the ongoing peace process," the statement said.
Analysts say Uganda is reluctant to pull out its troops, a move it fears could trigger a collapse of the Kiir-led government, creating a full-blown war across a nation that has emerged as one of its key export markets.
Regional countries and some western powers have voiced concern in the past that Uganda's deployment was complicating efforts by IGAD to resolve the conflict.
On May 9, Machar and Kiir signed a ceasefire and agreed to form an interim government by Aug. 10, but they missed that deadline as peace talks in Addis Ababa stalled.
Last week, the United Nations Security Council warned it could impose sanctions on the warring sides, due to repeated violations of the ceasefire, amid growing fears of a man-made famine in the country.
(editing by Duncan Miriri and Ralph Boulton)