Fighting persisted in parts of South Sudan’s oil-producing region last night as African leaders tried to advance peace talks between president Salva Kiir and rivals he accuses of attempting a coup.
Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian premier Hailemariam Desalegn met Mr Kiir yesterday.
A senior government official warned that Riek Machar, the former vice-president who now commands renegade forces in the states of Unity and Upper Nile, had to renounce rebellion before the government could negotiate with him.
Michael Makuei Leuth, South Sudan’s information minister, said the government has not yet established formal contact with Mr Machar.
Government troops are trying to retake Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity state, from forces loyal to Mr Machar. There was also reported fighting in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, said Mr Lueth.
Upper Nile and Unity include South Sudan’s key oil-producing region, raising fears unrest there could cut off the nation’s economic lifeblood.
Colonel Philip Aguer, the military spokesman, said government troops were “preparing to retake Bentiu as soon as possible” and that pro-Machar forces controlled only “half” of Malakal. He provided no details.
World leaders have urged South Sudan’s leaders to stop the violence in which thousands are thought to have been killed.
The United States, Norway and Ethiopia are leading efforts to open alks between Mr Kiir and his rivals. Mr Kiir said in a Christmas address he was willing to “dialogue” with all his opponents.
The United Nations is investigating reports of mass killings since violence began spreading across South Sudan after a fight among presidential guards on 15 December, pitting soldiers from Mr Kiir’s Dinka tribe against those from the Nuer tribe of Mr Machar.
South Sudan’s top UN humanitarian official, Toby Lanzer, said on Monday he believed the death toll had surpassed 1,000.
South Sudan gets nearly 99 per cent of its government budget from oil revenues.
“We are moving toward them and we will flush them out like we did in Bor,” Mr Leuth said, referring to the capital of Jonglei state that government troops retook from renegade forces earlier in the week.
Although the capital, Juba, is now calm, fighting appears to be spreading, stretching the limits of humanitarian workers and aid agencies. The UN humanitarian office said aid agencies need $166 million (£97m) to save lives amid continuing violence.
“The resources will be used to provide clean water and sanitation, health care, shelter, and deliver food and livelihood assistance,” the UN said.
“It will also ensure that the rights of vulnerable people, including survivors of violence, are better protected. The money will be used to manage sites for displaced people and transport aid workers and supplies to strategic locations where communities are most at risk.”
Some 58,000 people have taken refuge in and around UN bases in South Sudan and more than 92,000 have fled their homes as a result of fighting that has raised fears of a civil war between the Dinka and the Nuer, according to the UN.
The UN Security Council last week voted unanimously to beef up its peacekeeping force in South Sudan. It condemned targeted violence against civilians and ethnic communities and called for “an immediate cessation of hostilities and the immediate opening of a dialogue”.
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal. Before that, the south fought decades of war with Sudan. The country, one of the world’s least developed, still has pockets of rebel resistance and sees cyclical, tribal clashes that result in hundreds of deaths.