ADDIS ABABA - Warring parties in South Sudan delayed direct peace talks on Saturday dashing hopes of a swift ceasefire to end raging fighting and the risk of a slide into all-out civil war.
While top leaders of the government and rebel teams have briefly met directly, the rivals continued Saturday to hold separate talks with negotiators.
No timeline has been set for the crucial face-to-face talks to begin, despite the teams having already spent three days in the same luxury hotel in neighbouring Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa.
Thousands of people are feared to have been killed in the fighting since it erupted on December 15, pitting army units loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by his rival, former vice president Riek Machar.
In South Sudan Saturday the army battled to wrest back control of the oil town of Bor from rebels.
"Our forces are still moving towards Bor, there were heavy battles on Friday," army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP, dismissing rebel claims they had been marching on the capital Juba.
There were reports of intense battles involving tanks and artillery on the outskirts of Bor, a dusty strategic town that has already exchanged hands three times since fighting began almost three weeks ago.
The ongoing fighting prompted the top UN aid official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, to warn that soldiers and rebels must protect civilians and aid workers, or risk worsening a situation he described as critical.
"More people arrived at our bases in Juba... we're up to 30,000 in the capital alone," Lanzer said late Friday.
The US embassy in South Sudan ordered a further pullout of staff on Friday because of the "deteriorating security situation", although Washington -- a key backer of the fledgling state -- insisted it remains committed to ending the violence.
Key role of regional nations
In Addis Ababa, there appeared little sign of swift progress.
South Sudan Information Minister Michael Makuei, part of the delegation to the talks, as well as rebel team spokesman Yohanis Musa Pouk, said the two sides would not meet until an agenda had been drafted by negotiators and agreed by both sides.
Makuei told AFP the two leaders of the delegations had met briefly, but that the teams were now "waiting to hear the way forward" from the negotiators, who are from the regional East African IGAD bloc of nations.
"The heads of the two delegations need to agree on an agenda... maybe tomorrow or after tomorrow," rebel spokesman Pouk said.
Kenyans who fled the fighting in South Sudan arrive at Wilson airport in Nairobi. PHOTO/AFP
A group of South Sudanese soldiers patrol the streets of Juba. PHOTO/AFP
IGAD, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, whose members include the talks host Ethiopia as well as Kenya and Uganda -- all strong backers of Kiir's government -- played key roles in pushing forward the 2005 deal that ended Sudan's two-decade-long civil war.
Uganda has deployed troops inside South Sudan to evacuate its citizens and bolster support for Kiir.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague has called Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to discuss Kampala's role in South Sudan, without giving further details.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Friday had spoken optimistically that direct talks would take place on Saturday, after the rival sides spent a day of meeting separately with special envoys from regional nations.
But Addis Ababa's foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said Saturday the two sides would continue meeting separately with negotiators.
No timeline had been set, Dina said, adding it "depends on the negotiations."
Civilians in critical condition
Fighting started when Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup in the oil-rich but impoverished nation.
Machar denied this, in turn accusing the president of conducting a violent purge of opponents.
Fighting has spread across the country, with the rebels seizing several areas in the oil-rich north.
Aid workers have stepped up warnings of a worsening crisis for civilians affected by the conflict in the landlocked country of almost 11 million people.
The violence has forced around 200,000 people to flee their homes and "affected many hundreds of thousands of people indirectly", the UN's Lanzer said. Tens of thousand are seeking refuge with badly overstretched UN peacekeepers.
The UN peacekeeping force said this week that atrocities are continuing to occur throughout South Sudan, which won independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.
The conflict has been marked by an upsurge of ethnic violence pitting members of the Dinka tribe that Kiir comes from against the Nuer people of Machar.
Machar told AFP this week he was not yet ready to agree to an immediate ceasefire nor hold face-to-face talks with Kiir.
Kiir has described the war as "senseless" and has ruled out power-sharing with the rebels.
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Direct S. Sudan ceasefire talks delayed