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Fighting escalates in South Sudan

Agence France-Presse . Juba

Fighting escalated on Saturday in South Sudan, with a top commander in the country’s key oil-producing region defecting to the rebels and foreign governments scrambling to evacuate their nationals.
A US military aircraft was shot at as it was engaged in evacuation operations in Bor, the rebel-held capital of Jonglei state, a diplomatic source and Ugandan military officials said, with some US military personnel injured in the incident.
The upsurge in hostilities in the world’s youngest nation came despite an offer from the president, Salva Kiir, to open talks with his former deputy Riek Machar, who is accused of having started the fighting by attempting a coup.
Machar in turn accuses Kiir of conducting a violent purge, and has quickly built up a rebel army to take on the central government on several fronts.
At least 500 people have been killed in Juba alone in six days of fighting, while tens of thousands have been displaced — many of them seeking shelter in UN bases across the country amid warnings that the impoverished nation is on the brink of all-out civil war.
Neighbouring Kenya on Saturday ordered troops into the country to evacuate Kenyans stranded there, following Uganda, which has already sent in a special forces unit to help evacuate its nationals.
The US president, Barack Obama, has warned that hopes for South Sudan at its independence from Sudan in July 2011 are now ‘at risk’, amid reports from rights groups of an upsurge in ethnic killings.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, said on Friday he was sending Donald Booth, his special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, to the region to encourage talks between the warring factions.
African ministers have also stepped up pressure on Kiir to start talks with Machar.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on Friday issued an appeal for an end to hostilities and urged the leaders of Sudan’s warring factions ‘to resolve their personal differences through dialogue immediately’.
In Juba fresh bursts of gunfire rang out at hourly intervals throughout the night, prompting a new wave of terrified citizens to attempt to flee at dawn, an AFP reporter said.

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