The head of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan has called for a ceasefire to avoid a further escalation of violence. Meanwhile, the country's President Salva Kiir declared a state of emergency in two regions.
The United Nations' chief representative in South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, on Wednesday said there was still time to bring the world's newest country "back from the brink."
While fighting continued in the city of Bor - a gateway to the national capital, Juba - Johnson said the country was at a decisive moment. She urged President Kiir and the country's former Vice President Riek Machar, who is leading the forces against the government, to place their faith in negotiation.
"The country is at a crossroads," said Johnson. "It's at a fork in the road but it can still be saved from further, major escalations of violence. It is up to the leaders of this country and the two parties."
"Both (Kiir and Machar) said to me and to others that they want to talk, to have a dialogue and to give peace a chance," Johnson said.
Since fighting began, the UN estimates that more than 1,000 people have died and at least 175,000 have been displaced. The divide behind the violence appears to be based largely on ethnic lines.
‘Pinches of salt' needed
Johnson's comments came in response to Machar's stated intention on Tuesday of sending his troops to the capital. "I think we need to take quotations with pinches of salt at this point of time," Johnson said.
Both sides have sent representatives to talks in Ethiopia, but so far, the rebels have refused to lay down their arms.
Negotiating teams from both sides arrived in Addis Ababa on Wednesday evening. With talks expected to begin on Thursday, formal negotiations many not start for several days, Ethiopia's foreign minister said. The government, meanwhile, has offered a ceasefire but has ruled out the notion of power sharing, claiming it would be an "award" for rebellion.
Kiir - from the majority Dinka ethnic group - insists the fighting began with a coup attempt by soldiers loyal to Machar, who is from the Nuer ethnic group. Machar - who was dismissed by Kiir in July - claims the violence began with an attack on Nuer guards.
Late on Wednesday, Kiir declared a state of emergency in the states of Jonglei and Unity. Bor, the capital of Jonglei, is a key flashpoint,with government troops nearby facing rebel forces alongside the pro-Machar tribal militia known as the "White Army."
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war in which it is estimated that more than 2 million people died.
jlw, rc/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)