The warring parties of South Sudan have opened peace talks with negotiators in Ethiopia, but rival leaders have yet to meet face to face.
South Sudan's warring parties started negotiations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Friday to strike a ceasefire deal and end nearly three weeks of conflict, according to Ethiopia's foreign ministry, although face-to-face talks are yet to begin.
"Negotiation started," the ministry said. It added that the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) – an eastern Africa trading bloc – "was committed to support in any way possible".
The two sides are meeting with special envoys from regional nations, with sources suggesting the rivals may not meet directly until at least Saturday.
Government and rebel negotiating teams began arriving on Wednesday at a luxury hotel in Ethiopia's capital city, but the start of talks had been delayed until the full teams arrived.
"All members of the negotiating team from both the government and opposition of South Sudan [have] arrived," the ministry said.
Thousands of people are feared to have been killed in the fighting, pitting army units loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by former vice-president Riek Machar.
Fighting erupted on December 15 when Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup in the world's newest nation.
Aid workers have increased warnings of a worsening crisis for civilians, which some observers have warned risks deteriorating into full-blown civil war.
The top United Nations (UN) aid official in South Sudan warned on Friday that soldiers and rebels must protect civilians and aid workers, or risk worsening the conflict feared to have already left thousands of people dead.
"All parties to the conflict have a responsibility to make sure that civilians are spared from the fighting, do everything possible to restore calm, and ensure that law and order prevails," said United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator Toby Lanzer.
"We call on all parties to facilitate aid agencies' access to civilians, and to protect and respect humanitarian activities, workers and property at all times."
Almost three weeks of violence has forced around 200 000 people to flee their homes and "affected many hundreds of thousands of people indirectly", Lanzer said. About 57 000 are seeking refuge with badly overstretched UN peacekeepers.
The UN peacekeeping force said this week that "atrocities are continuing to occur" across the country, which won independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.
It reported "extra-judicial killings of civilians and captured soldiers" and the "discovery of large numbers of bodies" in the capital Juba as well as in the towns of Bor and Malakal.
The largest single site of civilians in need is in Awerial county in Lakes state, where about 76 000 people have gathered, many fleeing the heavy fighting in neighbouring Jonglei state.
Oxfam, which like other aid agencies is deploying special teams to cope with the huge demands of people fleeing the fighting, said it "strongly condemns the use of violent force against civilians".
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Friday that "the protection of all civilians must be respected".
"I have noted disturbing reports of human rights abuse ... any perpetrators of systematic or targeted abuses of human rights will be held accountable for their actions." – Sapa-AFP