- POSTED: 26 Dec 2013 05:03
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South Sudan's army battled rebel forces Wednesday in an oil flashpoint while troops flushed out insurgents in Bor after its recapture, as the United Nations moved to double its peacekeeping force to stave off civil war.
BOR: South Sudan's army battled rebel forces Wednesday in an oil flashpoint while troops flushed out insurgents in Bor after its recapture, as the United Nations moved to double its peacekeeping force to stave off civil war.
Thousands are believed to have been killed in more than a week of violence pitting troops loyal to President Salva Kiir against those backing his rival Riek Machar, a former vice president who was sacked in July.
Amid reports of bodies piled in mass graves, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the two rivals to negotiate an end to the spiralling violence in the world's youngest nation.
The unrest has taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer.
Ban called the ethnic attacks a "grave violation of human rights" and reiterated that those responsible would be "held accountable."
"South Sudan is under threat - but South Sudan is not alone," Ban said in a Christmas Day radio and video message to the people of the violence-wracked nation.
Late on Tuesday, the UN Security Council voted to send nearly 6,000 extra soldiers and police to South Sudan, nearly doubling the UNMISS force to 12,500 troops and 1,323 civilian police.
But Ban, who requested the reinforcements, warned the force would be unable to protect "every civilian in need".
Government forces celebrated late Tuesday the recapture of Bor from forces loyal to Machar after the army stormed the strategic town, but battles raged elsewhere including in Malakal, capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state.
"There is fighting now in Malakal since morning between the government forces and the rebels," Information Minister Michael Makwei told AFP. "It is not true that the rebels have taken over."
"Thousands" of dead
An AFP correspondent who visited Bor on Wednesday said that bodies littered the streets and stores were looted, with occasional gun shots still ringing out even as civilians poured back into the town.
Fighting has spread to half the country's 10 states, the United Nations said, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to the countryside and others flooding UN bases seeking shelter.
The UN humanitarian chief in the country, Toby Lanzer, said Tuesday there was "absolutely no doubt in my mind that we're into the thousands" of dead, the first clear indication of the scale of the conflict engulfing the country, which won independence from Sudan to much fanfare just two years ago.
Earlier, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said a mass grave had been found in the rebel-held town of Bentiu and cited reports of at least two more in Juba.
Around 15 bodies were found in one site in Bentiu, and another 20 bodies at a nearby river, she said.
In Juba, the UN mission was more cautious, confirming the 15 killed but saying it was still "investigating reports of such atrocities".
The official toll nationwide has stood at 500 dead for days, but aid workers have said the number killed was likely far higher.
Pope Francis called Wednesday for "social harmony" and warned the violence was "threatening peaceful coexistence".
"Chaos" could engulf nation
Witnesses recount a wave of atrocities, including an orchestrated campaign of mass killings and rape.
"There are now people who are targeting others because of their tribal affiliation," Kiir said in a Christmas message to the country, where the population is roughly divided between Christians, Muslims and those with traditional beliefs. "It will only lead to one thing, and that is to turn this new nation into chaos."
Government forces have also said they are preparing to take back the town of Bentiu, capital of South Sudan's most important oil region Unity state, now in the hands of a powerful army commander who mutinied last week to join Machar.
Oil production, which accounts for more than 95 per cent of South Sudan's fledgling economy, has been dented by the violence, with oil workers evacuated.
Bor's recapture, without major resistance by the rebels, lifted a nearly week-long siege of the town, where some 17,000 civilians fled into the UN compounds for protection, severely stretching limited food and supplies.
"Most of the rebels who were in the town are on the run," Makwei said.
UN peacekeepers had spent days bolstering fortifications ahead of the army assault, after militia gunmen last week stormed a UN compound in the Jonglei outpost of Akobo, killing two Indian soldiers and about 20 ethnic Dinka civilians sheltering there.
Machar said he was ready to accept Kiir's offer of talks following days of shuttle diplomacy by African nations and calls from Western powers for an end to the fighting.
"We want democratic, free and fair elections. We want Salva Kiir to call it a day," Machar said, listing his demands Tuesday.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called both men and urged them to "accept a cessation of hostilities and begin mediated political talks", the State Department said.
The US military deployed a "platoon-sized" Marine contingent to neighbouring Uganda, while nearly 100 US troops are already on the ground in South Sudan. Four were wounded on Saturday when their aircraft was shot at during an evacuation operation.
South Sudan gained independence in July 2011 after a bloody decades-long struggle for independence from Sudan.