ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Rebels in South Sudan are forcibly recruiting civilians to march on the national capital, the military said, even as representatives of the warring factions gathered in neighboring Ethiopia for the expected start of peace talks Thursday.
The fighting underscored the challenge facing African mediators as they try to nudge two rivals --President Salva Kiir and ousted Vice President Riek Machar --toward the negotiating table.
South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension and a power struggle within the ruling party that escalated after Kiir dismissed Machar as his vice president in July, with the violence boiling over in mid-December. The rebels back Machar, who is now a fugitive sought by the military.
Rebels currently hold Bor, the capital of the key oil-producing state of Jonglei that is seeing some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict. Military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said the central government had sent in reinforcements from Juba, the capital.
He said rebels were arming reluctant civilians as they focus on their next target: Juba, the seat of the central government.
"Juba, that is their intention," he said. "They are trying to march to Juba. The (South Sudanese military) will return them to where they came from."
It was not possible to independently verify Aguer's account.
The fighting has overshadowed efforts in neighboring Ethiopia, which is playing a leading role in trying to extract a cease-fire deal from both sides.
The first direct talks were expected to start later on Thursday in Addis Ababa, but were held up by the absence of the government's full delegation. Machar's representatives, Western diplomats and mediators were said to be waiting for the arrival of the government's delegation.
The United Nations and the African Union have said they support the efforts to broker peace in South Sudan.
Kiir on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in the states of Jonglei and Unity, where rebels also control the capital.
The fighting has exposed ethnic rivalry between the country's two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka of Kiir and the Nuer of Machar. The U.N. says there is mounting evidence that people were targeted for their ethnicity.
More than 1,000 people have been killed and nearly 200,000 displaced by violence.
Kiir insists the fighting was sparked by a coup attempt mounted by soldiers loyal to Machar on Dec. 15 in Juba.
But that account has been disputed by some officials of the ruling party, who say the violence began when presidential guards tried to disarm their Nuer colleagues. From there, violence spread across the country, with forces loyal to Machar defecting and seizing territory from loyalist forces.
Machar has criticized Kiir as a dictator and says he will contest the 2015 presidential election.
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal. Before that, the south fought decades of war with Sudan.