The United Nations says it's working "as quickly as possible" to deploy 5,500 extra UN peacekeepers to protect civilians in South Sudan where fighting is focused on the oil hub of Bentiu and the Nile river town of Bor.
Forces of South Sudan's President Salva Kiir sought to regain the oil hub of Bentiu from rebels on Friday. At the UN, peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said extra troops were being deployed to protect Sudanese civilians.
Briefing the UN Security Council, Ladsous said the violent breakup of South Sudan's administration in mid-December had left probably a quarter of a million South Sudanese displaced, including 60,000 sheltering at UN compounds and tens of thousands who had sought refuge in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Ladsous said the deadline for the extra deployments was "between four and eight weeks." Troops and police would be drawn from other UN and African Union missions, across Africa, he added, and would go "into a pro-active footing."
South Sudan's fighting, often along ethnic lines, has pitted Kiir's SPLA forces against rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar.
8,000 sheltering at Bentiu
The UN said it was ready to fend off any attacks on its own compound at Bentiu where 8,000 people are sheltering.
UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq described the situation as "unclear and fluid."
The news agency AFP said fighting was also raging around the town of Bor, the only other major town in rebel hands.
Hundreds of people fled through crocodile-infested swamps of the White Nile river and told how gunmen had shot civilians with machine guns as they fled.
Peace talks in deadlock
With peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia in deadlock, US Assistant Secretary for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield said South Sudan – formed only 3 years ago – was "in danger of shattering."
"Each day the conflict continues, the risk of all-out civil war grows as ethnic tensions rise," she told US lawmakers in Washington.
The talks have faced delays after Kiir refused a rebel demand to release 11 high-level political detainees.
Death toll 'substantially' higher
At the UN, Ladsous said he estimated that the death toll was "very substantially in excess" of the 1,000 deaths the UN cited just after the conflict erupted on December 15.
The violence began as a clash between rival army units in what President Kiir said was an attempted coup by Machar.
Machar denied that accusation, accusing Kiir of trying to root out political opponents.
The conflict has trimmed South Sudan's oil production by around a fifth, depriving the impoverished nation of its main source of foreign currency.
ipj/jm (AFP, Reuters, AP)