JUBA - South Sudan's President Salva Kiir offered Wednesday to hold talks with his arch-rival he accuses of leading a coup bid that has sparked days of fierce fighting in the world's youngest nation.
Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more terrified civilians have fled their homes to UN bases since Sunday.
The fighting, which has now spread outside the capital Juba, has raised fears in the international community of a return to civil war.
Kiir has accused soldiers loyal to fugitive former vice president Riek Machar of staging a coup attempt in the oil-rich but deeply impoverished nation, which has struggled with instability since becoming independent in 2011.
"I will sit down with him -- Riek -- and talk... but I don't know what the results of the talks will be," Kiir told reporters.
But Machar has denied any attempt to topple the president, and has instead accused Kiir of using the violence as a pretext to purge any challengers.
"What took place in Juba was a misunderstanding between presidential guards within their division, it was not a coup attempt," Machar told the Paris-based Sudan Tribune website Wednesday, his first public remarks since the fighting erupted.
"Kiir wanted to use the alleged coup attempt in order to get rid of us," said Machar, who was sacked by the president in July.
The government said 10 key figures, many of them former ministers, have been arrested in the crackdown, and that others, including Machar, were on the run.
Kiir also said powerful military commander Peter Gadet -- who rebelled in 2011 but then rejoined the army -- had mutinied again, launching attacks in the eastern state of Jonglei in support of Machar.
In Juba, gunfire rang out into the early hours of Wednesday, but by midday life on the streets showed signs of returning to normal.
But fighting was reported overnight Tuesday in Jonglei's state capital Bor, with shooting breaking out again in the early hours of Wednesday.
"Hundreds of civilians have been streaming into our camp on the outskirts of the town, they're now over the 1,000 mark, and Bor is very tense," said Joe Contreras, a spokesman for the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
The UN also reported clashes in the town of Torit, state capital of Eastern Equatoria.
The fighting has highlighted the bitter fault lines in the country, which is awash with guns after decades of war.
Kiir and his rival Machar hail from different ethnic groups and fought on different sides during Sudan's civil war.
Amid fears that South Sudan could descend into wider ethnic violence, the United States ordered non-essential embassy staff out of the country, flying out the first of its nationals on a special flight.
Britain is also temporarily pulling out some embassy staff.
Juba airport reopened and several regional airlines resumed flights, with long lines of aid workers and expatriates boarding the first flight they could out of the country, and others leaving by bus for Uganda.
"Sad/conflicted about leaving place I love in turmoil," wrote American aid worker Erin Polich on Twitter after arriving in Kenya, adding she was "glad" to be heading home.
Many of Juba's residents have spent the past two days barricaded in their homes, too afraid to move.
Others used lulls in the sporadic and often intense battles to grab what belongings they could and flee to safer areas, including UN bases.
"Those who have killed people will be taken to court and be tried," Kiir said, urging calm and calling on the thousands seeking shelter at UN peacekeeping bases to return home.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the Security Council that between 400-500 bodies had been taken to hospitals in Juba, while another 800 people had been wounded.
Ladsous told the council it appeared the clashes that erupted in the "extremely tense" capital were on ethnic lines.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said medical teams in Juba's two main hospitals were having trouble coping.
"Staff in both hospitals have been working around the clock, but they are struggling because of the sheer volume of patients and the severity of the injuries," said Felicity Gapes, an ICRC delegate leading the medical response on the ground.
"There is a heavy toll, it is obvious," Security Council president Gerard Araud told reporters at the UN, adding that precise figures were not yet available.
"There are dozens and scores of casualties," added Araud, France's UN ambassador.
Ladsous told the Security Council that between 15,000 and 20,000 people had sought UN protection in Juba.
The special representative of the UN secretary-general, Hilde Johnson, said it was "paramount" that the conflict did not assume ethnic dimensions.