JUBA, South Sudan — As clashes between government troops and rebels continued in South Sudan on Thursday, diplomats said they made progress in getting the sides to the negotiating table but no cease-fire talks have yet been set.
President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia arrived Thursday in South Sudan to meet with President Salva Kiir, pressing for a political solution to the fighting that has engulfed this young nation for more than a week.
Diplomats from Africa, Europe, and the United States have urgently called for the two sides in the crisis to begin negotiations before the violence escalates into an all-out civil war.
Officials called the closed-door discussion with Kiir and the two regional leaders constructive, but the hoped-for result — a plan for formal talks between the two sides to begin — was not announced.
The government said the former vice president, Riek Machar, leader of the rebel movement, was not represented at Thursday’s meeting, the Associated Press reported.
Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the South Sudanese foreign minister, said more discussions will be held Friday in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where regional leaders under a bloc known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development will get a report on the efforts so far.
Even as Thursday’s meeting took place, a spokesman for the South Sudanese military, Colonel Philip Aguer, said government forces were waging a pitched battle against rebels in the city of Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile, with the government in control of the northern part of the city and the rebels in the southern half.
Hilde Johnson, the UN special representative to South Sudan, said she expects some military reinforcements and equipment to arrive in South Sudan in 48 hours, to strengthen efforts to protect more than 50,000 civilians seeking refuge at UN bases.
The Security Council voted Tuesday to temporarily increase the UN force from about 8,000 troops and police to nearly 14,000 and send attack helicopters and other equipment.
The crisis in South Sudan began on Dec. 15 after what Kiir described as a coup attempt by soldiers loyal to Machar. Kiir dismissed Machar and the entire Cabinet back in July.
Machar remains in an undisclosed location after fleeing the capital.
Many of his allies were arrested and he has said their release is a precondition for starting peace talks, a position Kiir has rejected.
But the political dispute has spiraled into a broader humanitarian crisis. Johnson said in a videoconference from the capital here on Thursday that well over 1,000 lives had been lost in the conflict already.
The peacekeeping force is overstretched trying to protect those seeking refuge, she said.
While an uneasy calm prevailed in Juba on Thursday, some fighting continued in the strategic city of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state that is home to a UN compound where an estimated 17,000 people have sought refuge, Johnson said.
Heavier fighting centered in the oil-producing states of Unity and Upper Nile, disrupting production as foreign oil workers have fled, in some cases shutting facilities before departing to limit damage.
Johnson said the United Nations did not see the conflict coming. “We knew that there were tensions and that this could lead to problems, but I don’t think any South Sudanese, nor any of us observers, in country or outside, expected an unraveling of the stability so quickly,” she said. “The speed, the gravity, and the scale, I think nobody would have expected.”