South Sudan's government has announced a plan to launch an offensive to take two strategic towns from rebel control. Rebel commander Riek Machar has, however, indicated he would be open to peace talks.
Western powers and East African states had been attempting to mediate between President Salva Kiir and the former vice president-turned rebel leader, Machar. Their efforts appeared to be in vain, with fighting expected to escalate drastically with a planned army assault on the Jonglei state capital, Bor, and the Unity State oil town of Bentiu predicted to take place some time in next few hours.
The army is "now ready to move to Bor," President Salva Kiir told parliament on Monday, adding the move had been delayed while the United States airlifted its citizens out of the country.
"We are making a major offensive," Information Minister Michael Makuei told the Reuters news agency. "... We will take over Bor."
Kiir has repeatedly offered to meet Machar for talks, but said he "has to come to the table without any precondition."
He now has his response, though Machar - in hiding "in the bush" - said he would only come to the negotiating table if certain demands were met.
"My message was let Salva Kiir release my comrades who are under detention and let them be evacuated to Addis Ababa [the capital of Ethiopia, where Machar prefers to meet] and we can start dialogue straightaway, because these are the people who would [handle] dialogue," he told Reuters by telephone.
"A ceasefire is always part of the negotiation, it cannot be done through telephone, nor can it be done through shuttle diplomacy."
Machar added that the rebels' control of Bentiu would not seek to stop the production of oil.
The fighting stems from an alleged coup attempt by Machar on December 15. Sacked from the vice president's post in July, Machar has denied he was responsible, but has insisted Kiir resign. The duo are long-time adversaries, belonging to rival tribes and having previously fought on opposing sides.
The violence since the alleged coup attempt has claimed the lives of hundreds of people, with as many as 100,000 others displaced. Over 40,0000 have sought refuge in United Nations compounds. While the capital of Juba - the scene of the initial fighting - has returned to a semblance of calm thanks to the presence of peacekeepers, the fighting has spread.
"This Christmas will not be like the previous ones because we will be mourning our dear lost ones in this senseless war," Kiir said.
Fighting spreads from Juba
Conflict was reported on Sunday in Upper Nile, while Bor is the town in which rebel forces fired on three US military aircraft on Saturday. Top army officials are said to have switched their allegiances to the rebellion in both Bor and Bentiu.
"Everybody knows that Bor is a strategic location," UN humanitarian coordinator Toby Lanzer said. "It would be difficult for me to imagine a scenario in which Bor is completely calm and safe over the coming days."
US special envoy David Booth arrived in South Sudan on Monday to add his efforts to attempts to avoid an all-out civil war. The US deployed 46 soldiers over the weekend to aid their evacuation of Americans in South Sudan, with 45 having already been sent to Juba to protect the country's embassy. The UN Mission in South Sudan said in a statement Sunday that all non-critical staff in Juba were being evacuated to Uganda.
With the number of internal refugees fast rising, the UN is seeking urgent financial assistance from the US, Britain and other European countries, Lanzer said.
ph/pfd (Reuters, AFP, AP)