Negotiators in Juba have said they made "good progress" in talks seeking to broker peace in South Sudan. Clashes continued in the oil-rich north, however, while the UN dispatched more peacekeeping personnel and hardware.
Military and political representatives in South Sudan reported continued fighting in the north of the country, as mediators from neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia sought a solution to the fighting at peace talks in the capital Juba.
Oil production was shut down in Unity state earlier this week as rebel forces claimed parts of the region. The petroleum ministry said some production facilities in Unity state were in rebel hands.
"Some oil wells are in the hands of rebel soldiers loyal to former vice president Riek Machar and we fear they may cause damage to the facilities and the environment," Petroleum Minister Stephen Dhieu Dau told the Reuters news agency by telephone.
A South Sudanese army spokesman said troops loyal to President Salva Kiir were fighting to defend the town of Malakal, the capital of the Upper Nile state where oil deliveries have not been halted.
"There is fighting in Malakal. Our forces are in the northern part of Malakal and the rebels are on the southern part. We will flush them out of Malakal," Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) spokesman Philip Aguer told the AFP news agency.
The violence in South Sudan, which began 12 days ago when President Kiir accused Vice President Machar of attempting a coup, prompted the UN on Tuesday to send another 6,000 peacekeepers to the world's most recently-formed country.
UN sends speedy back-up
Hilde Johnson, head of the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said on Thursday that hardware and personnel reinforcements would start arriving within 48 hours.
"We are working around the clock to get assets in that can assist us in the current crisis as quickly as ever possible, and we have had conversations with other [UN] missions today," Johnson told reporters from Juba. "We are working on a 48-hour delivery of several of the critical assets."
Once bolstered with all the planned reinforcements, the UNMISS force would number around 12,500 peacekeeping troops and over 1,000 civilian police. The UN was planning to draw the extra troops from UN and African Union missions nearby, in Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Liberia and parts of Sudan.
Johnson estimated the death toll from the fighting at more than 1,000 - but not multiple thousands as stated in some reports - before stressing that accurate calculations were not presently possible.
'Good progress' in peace talks
President Kiir met with his counterpart Uhuru Kenytta of Kenya and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in the capital Juba on Thursday for peace talks.
"The meeting was very constructive and candid," Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Minister Tedros Abodon told journalists after the talks.
Riek Machar, once Kiir's deputy, was not represented at the talks.
The former colleagues' ethnicity has provided an extra element to the conflict; Kiir is a Dinka while Machar is Nuer. Both the rival leaders have described the conflict as primarily political, not ethnic, a stance echoed by the UN's Johnson on Thursday.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan two-and-a-half years ago as part of a UN-sponsored peace deal seeking to end a 22-year Sudanese civil war that claimed an estimated 2 million lives.
msh/lw (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)