South Sudanese forces battled rebels on the outskirts of the strategically key town of Bor yesterday as a deadline set by east African nations for a ceasefire neared.
Unrest in the world’s youngest country has killed more than a thousand people in the past two weeks and displaced close to 200,000, raising the specter of civil war and unnerving oil markets.
The African Union threatened sanctions late on Monday against those inciting the violence and hampering international efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting, which risks drawing in other countries in eastern Africa.
“We are fighting the rebels now,” Bor Mayor Nhial Majak Nhial said by telephone from the edge of Bor, which lies 190km to the north of the capital, Juba, by road.
Nhial said he was positioned on the front line. As he spoke he barked orders to the government soldiers around him.
“Go, go. Do it,” he shouted, with sustained volleys of gunfire audible in the background.
South Sudan’s neighbors have given the warring sides until yesterday to lay down their arms and begin talks, but there has been no sign of the hostilities ending.
The precise moment the deadline expires is not clear.
The clashes erupted on Dec. 15 with fighting among a group of soldiers in Juba. The violence quickly spread to half of the country’s 10 states, cleaving the nation along the ethnic faultline of rebel leader Riek Machar’s Nuer group and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir’s Dinka.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Monday said east African nations had agreed to move in and defeat former South Sudanese vice president Machar if he rejected a government ceasefire offer. There was no immediate confirmation of the pact from other nations.