South Sudan president Salva Kiir has called for an end to wanton killings and tribal-based atrocities, as government troops clash with rebels loyal to his former deputy in an oil-producing region of the country.
Western powers fear the violence could spiral out of control and lead to a civil war split along ethnic lines in the world’s newest state.
On Tuesday the United Nations Security Council agreed to almost double the number of peacekeepers there. “Innocent people have been wantonly killed. People are targeting others because of their tribal affiliation. This is unacceptable,” Mr Kiir said yesterday, according to his government’s Twitter account.
“These atrocities recurring by now have to cease immediately,” he added.
The violence erupted in the capital Juba on 15 December and has quickly spread, dividing the landlocked country of 10.8 million along ethnic lines of Nuer and Dinka.
Western powers and east African states have tried to mediate between Mr Kiir, a Dinka, and rebel leader Riek Machar, a Nuer, who was sacked as vice-president in July.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is sending an envoy to South Sudan, the European Commission said yesterday. A South Sudan official said Ethiopian premier Hailemariam Desalegn and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta would arrive in Juba today to help mediate.
Despite African Union calls for a Christmas Day ceasefire, rebels and government troops on Wednesday clashed in Malakal, capital of the major oil state of Upper Nile.
“In Malakal, rebel forces are on one side, and government troops on another. Fighting is still taking place,” army spokesman Philip Aguer said.
A UN human rights group on Tuesday found a mass grave containing 75 bodies in a rebel-held town.
Mr Kiir and Mr Machar have both said their dispute is political, not tribal. But many of the 45,000 civilians seeking refuge inside UN bases say they have been targeted based on their ethnicity.
“It’s definitely not a good Christmas here in the abyss of war,” said Chan Awol, a 30-year-old civil servant whose family has scattered across South Sudan after the fighting started.
“Nobody wants to go back to the days when there were no schools, hospitals and roads. Above all, no South Sudanese wants to be a refugee again.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Christmas Day delivered a radio message to South Sudan’s people, saying the UN will stand with them during the country’s most difficult period since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011.
“We are strengthening the United Nations presence and will do our best to stop the violence and help you build a better future for all,” Mr Ban said.
Mr Machar said on Monday that he was willing to negotiate with Mr Kiir but only if his detained political allies were freed, something the government swiftly rejected. An army spokesman said government troops will within days attack the rebel-held town of Bentiu, capital of Unity state, which also produces oil.