South Sudan civil war fears grow as rebels seize town

South Sudan civil war fears grow as rebels seize town

JUBA - Agence France-Presse
South Sudan civil war fears grow as rebels seize town

Civilians arrive for shelter at the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Bor, South Sudan in this Dec 18, 2013 picture provided by the UNMISS. REUTERS photo

South Sudan rebels seized a key town Dec. 19 as days of fierce fighting sparked fears of a descent into civil war, with regional countries scrambling to kickstart peace efforts.

Rebelling troops loyal to fugitive former vice president Riek Machar seized the town of Bor late on Wednesday, army spokesman Philip Aguer said, as fighting continued following an alleged failed coup bid against South Sudan President Salva Kiir.

"Our soldiers have lost control of Bor to the force of Riek Machar late on Wednesday... there was shooting last night," Aguer told AFP.

He confirmed that some 450 people had been killed in Juba since battles broke out late on Sunday, including around a hundred soldiers, but added that troops had "restored calm" in the capital of the world's youngest nation. The United Nations peacekeeping mission said it was sheltering civilians in five state capitals, including Juba and Bor, as well as in Bentiu, the main town of the crucial petroleum-producing state of Unity.

Foreigners are being evacuated from the troubled country, with the United States and Britain sending in flights for their citizens, and others fleeing overland south to Uganda.

Long lines of aid workers and expatriates began crowding Juba's airport on Wednesday waiting to board the first flight they could out of the country.

Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more terrified civilians have fled their homes to seek protection at UN bases since the fighting broke out.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon warned Wednesday fighting could spread.

"There is a risk of this violence spreading to other states, and we have already seen some signs of this," he said, adding the crisis "urgently needs to be dealt with through political dialogue." There were fears that the poor and unstable nation, which broke free from Sudan in 2011, could slide back into all-out conflict.

"The scenario many feared but dared not contemplate looks frighteningly possible: South Sudan, the world's newest state, is now arguably on the cusp of a civil war," the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank warned Dec. 19.

Top ministers from four regional nations flew in Thursday to try to kick start peace efforts.