African mediators said they held “productive” talks on Friday with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, trying to prevent an almost week-long conflict plunging the world’s newest nation into an ethnic civil war.
In a sign of the nervousness among South Sudan’s neighbors, Ugandan soldiers flew in to help evacuate their citizens.
Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, has accused his former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer who was sacked in July, of attempting to seize power by force.
Fighting that began on Sunday in the capital Juba has swiftly spread, and U.N. staff have reported hundreds killed.
Kiir has said he is ready for dialogue. Machar told French radio he was ready to “negotiate his departure from power” and said the army could force Kiir out unless he quit.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he spoke with Kiir on Thursday and would send his envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Ambassador Donald Booth, to help facilitate talks.
“Now is the time for South Sudan’s leaders to rein in armed groups under their control, immediately cease attacks on civilians, and end the chain of retributive violence between different ethnic and political groups. The violence must stop, the dialogue must intensify,” Kerry said in a statement.
As fighting has moved out of the capital, it is increasingly driven by ethnic loyalties as much as political rivalries.
The U.N. said on Friday at least 11 people from the ethnic Dinka group had been killed during an attack by thousands of armed youths from another ethnic group on a U.N. peacekeeping base in Jonglei state. Two Indian peacekeepers died.
The United Nations had earlier said at least 20 people were killed, and South Sudan’s government said earlier 54 Dinka had been killed in the incident. The United Nations mission in South Sudan is still trying to verify the exact number of dead.
Deputy U.N. peacekeeping chief Edmond Mulet told the U.N. Security Council on Friday 35,000 civilians were sheltering at U.N. bases across the country.