African mediators said they held productive talks with South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, to prevent an ethnic civil war.
In a sign of the nervousness among South Sudan's neighbours, Ugandan soldiers flew in to help evacuate their citizens. Two anonymous military sources said they would also help secure the capital, which lies about 75km from Uganda's border. Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, has accused his former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer who was sacked in July, of attempting to seize power by force.
Fighting that began on Sunday in the capital Juba has swiftly spread, and UN staff have reported hundreds killed. Kiir has said he is ready for dialogue. Machar told French radio he was ready to "negotiate his departure from power" and said the army could force Kiir out unless he quit. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said he spoke with Kiir on Thursday and would send his envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Ambassador Donald Booth, to help facilitate talks.
"Now is the time for South Sudan's leaders to rein in armed groups under their control, immediately cease attacks on civilians, and end the chain of retributive violence between different ethnic and political groups. The violence must stop, the dialogue must intensify," Kerry said in a statement. As fighting has moved out of the capital, it is increasingly driven by ethnic loyalties as much as political rivalries. The UN said on Friday at least 11 people from the ethnic Dinka group had been killed during an attack by thousands of armed youths from another ethnic group on a UN peacekeeping base in Jonglei state. Two Indian peacekeepers died.
The UN had earlier said at least 20 people were killed, and South Sudan's government said earlier 54 Dinka had been killed in the incident. The UN mission in South Sudan is still trying to verify the exact number of dead. Deputy UN peacekeeping chief, Edmond Mulet, told the UN Security Council on Friday 35 000 civilians were sheltering at U.N. bases across the country.
Fighting has spread to oilfields vital to the impoverished new state's economy and dependent on foreign workers. Soldiers from the rival factions clashed at a barracks near the town of Bentiu, capital of the oil-producing Unity State. Some 200 oil workers sought refuge in a UN base on Thursday. China National Petroleum Corp , one of the main operators, said it was flying 32 workers out of one field to Juba, according the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. "It's difficult to find plane providers to fly to some of these remote air strips. The situation on the ground is very fluid and we can't be absolutely confident about exact rebel locations and which airfields they may be controlling," said one security analyst, who did not wish to be identified.
The mediation team visiting Juba included ministers from Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti and Somali, and AU and UN representatives. It was the first peace initiative since clashes erupted. "We had a very productive meeting with his Excellency President Salva Kiir and we will continue consultations," Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom, who is leading the African delegation, told reporters before returning to talks.
The fighting worries neighbouring states, which fear new instability in a volatile region. It threatens the halting steps towards the creation of a functioning state in a country which declared independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war. "Some troops from (Uganda's) Special Forces Command - I can estimate in hundreds - left for Juba yesterday," said a source in the Command, a unit led by President Yoweri Museveni's son. "They will mainly be involved in securing the capital," he said. Some had gone by plane and others would travel by road. "They're not going to participate in the skirmishes between Kiir and Machar."
On Saturday, Sudan's military said it "liberated" several areas of war-torn South Kordofan state, but rebels on Saturday dismissed the claim as propaganda, saying a government offensive achieved "nothing". The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) said late Friday that it had taken over Abu Hassan, a rebel command centre, "after a series of victories" elsewhere in the state. "SAF troops lost some martyrs and suffered wounded," the military said in a statement issued by the state SUNA news agency.
It did not mention casualties among the insurgents. Abu Hassan is in northeastern Rashad district, but the statement named more than a dozen other areas from which it was "able to expel rebels", including Kujuria in Dilling district. "This is not true," Arnu Ngutulu Lodi, spokesman for the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), told AFP. "It is aerial bombardment that caused destruction and the fleeing of the people." He said the rebels, who have been fighting for more than two years in South Kordofan, already announced on December 5 that they had defeated government forces "who attempted to occupy Kujuria".
The rebels claimed on December 12 that government attacks and bombing in other parts of the state had forced more than 2 000 residents to flee their homes. Sudanese authorities have severely restricted access to the war zone for aid workers, journalists and foreign diplomats, making verification of claims difficult.
Fighting has escalated since Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohammed Hussein said in November that an operation had begun to crush Sudanese rebels. "Nothing has been achieved on the ground," Lodi said. The uprising by the non-Arab SPLM-N is fuelled by complaints of political and economic neglect by the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime. – Reuters, Sapa