At least 200 South Sudanese civilians have drowned in a ferry accident while fleeing fresh fighting between government forces and rebels, the army said on Tuesday.
Army spokesperson Philip Aguer said the disaster occurred when the overloaded boat, packed with women and children escaping the northern oil city of Malakal, capsized in the White Nile river.
"The reports we have are of between 200 to 300 people, including women and children. The boat was overloaded," he said. "They all drowned. They were fleeing the fighting that broke out again in Malakal."
Aguer said the tragedy happened on Tuesday, although local media reported it occurred overnight on Sunday.
The disaster is one of the worst single incidents to have been reported from the war-torn country, which has been wracked by conflict for a month following a clash between rival army units loyal to either President Salva Kiir or his former vice-president Riek Machar.
According to the United Nations, some 400 000 civilians have fled their homes over the past month, many of them escaping a wave of ethnic violence. Up to 10 000 people are believed to have been killed in the fighting, aid sources and analysts say.
The army spokesperson meanwhile reported that battles were raging in several areas of the country, signalling that the government's recapture of Bentiu, another key oil city in the north, had failed to deal a knock-out blow to the rebels.
Heavy fighting was reported in Malakal, state capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state, as rebel forces staged a fresh attack to seize the town, which has already changed hands twice since the conflict began.
People seeking shelter
"There is fighting anew in and around Malakal," United Nations aid chief for South Sudan Toby Lanzer said, adding that the UN peacekeeping base had been swamped with almost double the number of people seeking shelter, rising from 10 000 to 19 000.
An Agence France-Presse photographer who was in Malakal on Sunday said that the town was calm but that the remaining residents were huddled in the town centre, too scared to return to their looted homes.
The army reported heavy fighting south of Bor, as the government sought to retake the town from rebels.
"We are marching on Bor, there was very heavy fighting late on Monday," Aguer said.
However, he rejected rebel claims to have captured the river port of Mongalla, situated between Bor and the capital Juba.
"We are north of Mongalla, we remain in full control there," Aguer said, while confirming more clashes – likely to have involved army defectors – around the town of Rajaf south of Juba.
The East African regional bloc IGAD has been brokering peace talks in neighbouring Ethiopia, and the negotiations resumed on Tuesday – although with still little sign of a breakthrough in the form of a ceasefire agreement.
Talks on Monday were broken up after delegates complained about the venue being shifted to a nightclub in Addis Ababa's luxury Sheraton hotel.
"The talks did not last long because the venue was not conducive; it was decided that we will continue at nine in the morning," South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makuei said late on Monday.
The UN's assistant secretary general for human rights, Ivan Šimonovi?, was also due in South Sudan on Tuesday for a four-day assessment of the human rights situation in the country.
UN rights chief Navi Pillay has already expressed grave concern over the severe human rights violations taking place daily in South Sudan during the past four weeks, amid reports of ethnic massacres, extra-judicial killings and the looting of aid agency property by both sides in the conflict.
South Sudan is the world's youngest nation, and only won independence from Khartoum in 2011 after decades of civil war. – Sapa-AFP