JUBA - South Sudan's government has agreed to an immediate ceasefire after nearly two weeks of heavy fighting with rebels, East African leaders announced Friday.
A meeting of regional leaders in Nairobi "welcomed the commitment by the Government of the Republic of South Sudan to an immediate cessation of hostilities," and told South Sudan's former vice president Riek Machar to "make similar commitments".
They also gave Machar and President Salva Kiir four days to hold face-to-face talks and halt fighting, pledging unspecified "further action" if the civil war continued.
The fighting in the world's newest nation broke out on December 15 after Machar, who was sacked in July, was accused of attempting a coup. The UN says thousands of people have been killed and over 120,000 forced to flee their homes, including 63,000 sheltering in UN peacekeeping bases.
Clashes have been reported in half of South Sudan's 10 states, with the violence taking on an ethnic dimension, pitting members of Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer community and atrocities reported to have been carried out by both sides.
President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) addressing the IGAD consultative meeting on the situation on South Sudan, flanked by Ethiopian PM and IGAD Chairman Haile Mariam Dessalegn (R). CREDIT/AFP (Source: PSCU)
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development regional grouping urged both sides "to refrain from steps that will inflame the conflict further, particularly along ethnic and sectarian lines."
The statement appeared to provide the first glimmer of hope for a ceasefire since the fighting began, but comes as both sides remain locked in fierce battles for control of several strategic oil-producing areas in the north of the country.
Witnesses have reported heavy clashes in Malakal, capital of the oil-producing Upper Nile State, and both government forces allied to the president and rebels loyal to Machar insisting they were in control after days of street battles.
A rebel spokesman in the area, Moses Ruai Lat, said "the whole of Malakal" was now in the hands of Machar's loyalists, who already control Bentiu, capital of the neighbouring oil-producing Unity State.
"All those forces who are loyal to the president have been cleared and the former governor of Upper Nile, Simon Kun Poch, is on the run," he told AFP.
But South Sudanese Defence Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk dismissed the claim as "disinformation".
"The elements loyal to Riek Machar were defeated and they are no longer in Malakal. The town is under full government control," he said, adding that government troops -- the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) -- were reinforcing their presence in the town.
The government has already said it is preparing an attack against Bentiu.
UN rushes to boost peacekeepers
The United Nations meanwhile announced extra troops and "critical assets" like helicopters would be on the ground by Saturday. UN officials have admitted to being badly overstretched and unable to cope with the dual role of protecting as well as feeding and sheltering terrified civilians.
The UN Security Council agreed Tuesday to nearly double the size of its mission known as UNMISS, allowing for up to 12,500 soldiers and 1,300 police, after the violence raged out of control.
People fill jerrycans with water from UN trucks in Bentiu. CREDIT/AFP (Source: UNMISS)
Joseph Alan, South Sudanese staff, testing patients for malaria at an MSF center in Juba. CREDIT/AFP (Source: MSF)
UN special envoy Hilde Johnson has said UN troops were "overstretched" and needed extra manpower to be deployed with "unprecedented speed".
Johnson said the UN peacekeeping office was "working around the clock" to get assets for its South Sudan mission from other deployments in Africa, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan's Darfur region and Liberia.
Witnesses have reported massacres, summary executions and rapes, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has promised those responsible would be "held accountable".
The IGAD statement also condemned "criminal acts of murder, sexual violence, looting and other criminal acts against civilians and unarmed combatants by any actor."
China has also said it would soon dispatch its special envoy for African affairs to South Sudan. China is the main buyer of South Sudan's oil, and has invested heavily in oil infrastructure and pipelines that carry crude from Unity and Upper Nile States.
Crude prices have edged higher because of the fighting as oil production, which accounts for more than 95 percent of South Sudan's economy, was dented by the violence and oil workers evacuated.