South Sudan’s government and rebels were locked in fierce battles across the country on Wednesday, as peace talks in neighbouring Ethiopia appeared to flounder.
A rebel spokesman indicated that there would be no imminent truce in the country unless the government freed a group of alleged coup plotters detained after the fighting began more than three weeks ago, a demand rejected by Juba.
But mediators returning from Juba late Wednesday said the detainees wanted a political solution to the crisis and did not want arguments over their liberation to block a potential ceasefire.
“The detainees… stated that their status as detainees should not be an impediment to reaching an agreement on cessation of hostilities,” said mediators from the East African regional bloc, IGAD, in a statement following a prison visit.
Military officials from both sides meanwhile said that a major battle was still raging for control of Bor, capital of Jonglei State and situated just north of the capital Juba.
Fighting was also taking place in the oil-producing Upper Nile State, while the rebels said more troops previously based in Juba had defected from the government side and could launch an assault on the capital.
“Our forces are coordinating themselves,” rebel spokesman Moses Ruai Lat said, adding that anti-government fighters were preparing to strike Juba and Malakal, capital of Upper Nile State.
The spokesman for the national army, Philip Aguer, confirmed fighting was in progress around Bor. An AFP reporter reached the town of Minkammen, 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of Bor, and said the area was flooded with fleeing civilians and that the rumble of heavy artillery fire could be heard in the distance.
“People fleeing the fighting around Bor keep coming by boat every day, we are doing our best to support them,” said John Parach, a local government relief coordinator.
The unrest began on December 15 as a clash between army units loyal to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and those loyal to ex-vice president Riek Machar, and has escalated into war between government troops and a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders.
Thousands of people have already been killed, aid workers say, while more than 200,000 have fled their homes — many of them seeking protection from overstretched UN peacekeepers amid a wave of ethnic violence pitting members of Kiir’s Dinka tribe against Machar’s Nuer tribe.
Negotiations between the rival parties were expected to resume Thursday in Addis Ababa.
‘Uganda will not pull out troops’
The government is currently holding 11 of Machar’s allies, many of them senior figures and former ministers, and has been under pressure from IGAD as well as Western diplomats to release them as a goodwill gesture.
The demands have been resisted until now, with the government arguing the detainees should be put on trial for their role in what the president says was an attempted coup.
“Those who were found to be attempting to take power by force have to go through legal procedures,” presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said.
“If they are found not guilty they will be released. But if they are found to be the ones who masterminded the failed coup attempt on the 15th, then the law has to take its measures,” he added.
Uganda meanwhile rejected demands by the South Sudanese rebels and MPs in Kampala that it withdraw its troops from South Sudan, following accusations that it was siding with the Juba government.
“We will not pull out our troops because we are in South Sudan at the request of the legitimate South Sudanese government to evacuate Ugandan civilians who are trapped there,” government spokesman Ofwono Opondo told reporters in Kampala.
Ugandan troops “are in South Sudan and notably protect Juba airport and key government facilities but we are not involved in any fighting”, he added.
Uganda has also established a 150-kilometre (90-mile) “safe” corridor between Juba and the Ugandan border to allow civilians to reach Uganda.
“We have managed to evacuate 23,000 civilians by road,”, he said. Another 3,200 Ugandans and other nationals were also taken to Uganda’s Entebbe airport.
The humanitarian crisis in South Sudan meanwhile continued to worsen, with Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), describing the situation as “dire”.
He also appealed to the warring factions to “respect humanitarian law”.
The exact toll of the conflict is unclear.
The UN has said well over a thousand people have died, although sources from a number of relief organisations say they believe the number of fatalities is already well into the thousands given the intensity of the initial fighting and violence in Juba, as well as the ongoing fierce clashes in Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states.