The UN has said it is deeply worried over reports that armed members of the "White Army" were advancing on the South Sudanese city of Bor. News agency Reuters has reported that clashes in Bor have now begun.
A spokesman for the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said Sunday the organization was "extremely concerned" over the reports that young members of fugitive former Vice President Riek Machar's tribe were moving towards the city of Bor in Jonglei state.
The UN conducted an aerial mission on Sunday to determine whether the number of fighters and their direction of travel, spokesman Joe Contreras said. A group of armed youths was reportedly located outside Bor, although the UN could not confirm their numbers.
Meanwhile, news agency Reuters cited Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth as saying clashes between members of the so-called "White Army" ethnic militia and South Sudan's army had already taken place 18 miles outside the city.
A day earlier Lueth told reporters that as many as 25,000 members of the militia were marching on the city. He said the figure was based upon intelligence the government had received from within the tribal militia itself.
"He [Machar] has decided to mobilize the youth in the name of his tribe," Lueth said.
Later reports suggest some of that group may have disbanded after Nuer community leaders of Jonglei state convinced them to return home.
A spokesman for the "White Army," whose name is said to come in part from the white ash its fighters smear on their skin in order to protect themselves from insects, has denied the militia is controlled by Machar. The armed Nuer youth were an "independently organised force," spokesman Moses Ruai Lat said Sunday.
Ceasefire offer rejected
Machar, who was sacked as vice president last summer, is accused by President Salva Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, of sparking the conflict by attempting to topple him in a coup earlier this month. Machar has denied this.
President Salva Kiir offered rebels a ceasefire on Friday after a regional crisis meeting in Nairobi. It was rejected by Machar, however, who was not represented at the talks. The former vice president said that he was open to entering negotiations towards a ceasefire, but that this could only be reached if such talks involved representatives of both parties to the conflict.
Since the fighting broke out on December 15, more than 1,000 people are believed to have been killed and 180,000 others force to flee.
ccp/rc (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)