Peace talks for South Sudan resumed in Addis Ababa Monday as fresh fighting was reported around the country, including in once-peaceful Western Bahr el Ghazal state, and the international community railed against alleged targeted ethnic killings.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is mediating the peace process, said negotiators for President Salva Kiir's government and the opposition, led by former vice president Riek Machar, arrived in the Ethiopian capital to resume talks after a three-week break.
IGAD said its mediating team held consultations with both sides during the recess to try to speed up the peace process and prevent a further escalation of the conflict.
But as the new round of talks got under way, clashes were reported around South Sudan, including in oil-producing Unity and Upper Nile states, Jonglei and Western Bahr el Ghazal.
Army officials say at least five soldiers were killed in an attack at a military training base in Mapel in Western Bahr el Ghazal, which has up to now avoided becoming embroiled in the conflict raking South Sudan.
The trainee soldiers, who were reported to be members of the Nuer ethnic group, were attacked by family members of other soldiers at the base.
Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer said it was unclear what prompted the attack on Friday.
He rejected opposition claims that more than 200 soldiers were "killed in cold blood" by the SPLA because of their ethnic background and to avenge the capture by rebel forces of a town in Duk County, in Jonglei state, that happens to be the hometown of the slain soldiers' commander, Major General Malual Majok.
Aguer insisted the SPLA was not involved in the attack on the recruits.
A day after the attack, four SPLA brigadier generals and other officers based in the Western Bahr el Ghazal capital, Wau, left their posts. They are reported to have defected to the opposition.
Deputy Governor Zachariah Joseph Garang said the state government has lost touch with the officers.
Fighting in Unity, Upper Nile, Jonglei
In addition to the fighting in Western Bahr el Ghazal, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported heavy fighting in Upper Nile state last week, especially in Renk county, which houses South Sudan's largest oil field.
Government and opposition officials said they have been doing battle for Mayom, in Unity state, and for areas in Duk County.
No one gave casualty figures for any of the fighting, but OCHA said more than 1.2 million people have been forced from their homes by the ongoing violence, including attacks on civilians that have drawn international condemnation.
The White House, State Department and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power joined a chorus of international officials condemning targeted killings of civilians in Bentiu, which the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has blamed on opposition forces.
The rebels have denied that they carried out the killings.
The international community has also spoken out against an attack by an armed mob on the U.N. compound in Bor, where dozens of people, including aid workers and civilians sheltering from violence, were killed.
Nearly 80,000 people have sought refuge at eight U.N. bases around South Sudan, including some 700 civilians who fled to the U.N. base in the town after the killings at Mapel and the alleged defecions of the SPLA officers, saying they feared they would be targeted following the two incidents.
Philip Aleu, Lucy Poni and Karin Zeitvogel contributed to this report.