Heavy fighting continued in South Sudan Tuesday as delegates for the two sides in the 16-day-old conflict began arriving in Ethiopia for peace talks, an ally of former Vice President Riek Machar said Tuesday.
"There is bombardment going on... Some of the areas that are controlled by Riek Machar are being bombarded and, as I speak to you, there is fighting going on in parts of Unity state," Hussein Mar Nyuot told a news conference in Nairobi.
"So far there is no ceasefire or cessation of hostilities," said Mar Nyuot, who up until he went over to Machar's side Tuesday was deputy governor of Jonglei state.
He said Jonglei, along with the two oil-producing states of Unity and Upper Nile, are under the control of forces loyal to Machar, who was accused by President Salva Kiir of mounting a failed coup on Dec. 15, triggering the violence that has spread across the country, displaced tens of thousands and claimed at least 1,000 lives.
Mar Nyuot said there was no coup attempt, and blamed the violence on a rift within the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party.
"It's not a coup, not a plan to come to power through the back door. This is a crisis within the SPLM, the leading party in the country, and these problems can be addressed by the same party," he said.
Machar was fired by Kiir in a sweeping cabinet reshuffle in July but remains the deputy chair of the SPLM.
'We are for mediation'
Mar Nyuot said Machar and his backers welcomed the efforts by regional African leaders to try to broker peace in South Sudan.
"We are for IGAD mediation, not against it. We are for peace," Mar Nyuot said, referring to the effort by the East African bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, to get both sides in the conflict to come to the negotiating table by Tuesday at the latest.
Rebecca Nyandeng, the widow of SPLM founder John Garang and herself a senior member of the party, arrived in Addis Ababa Tuesday for the peace talks. Mar Nyuot said Nyandeng, who has been a stern critic of Kiir, was named by Machar as one of his delegates for the negotiations.
Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told VOA News that the host nation of the proposed peace talks was still waiting for other delegates to the talks to arrive.
10,000 Flee to Neighboring Countries: UNHCR
Commenting on an ultimatum given by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to Machar to agree to peace talks by Tuesday or “we shall have to go for him", Mar Nyuot urged South Sudan's neighbors not to take sides in the country's conflict, saying doing so would only enflame the violence.
"Any conflict, any war in South Sudan, and these countries will be hurt," he said, referring to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, which each took in thousands of refugees during the long civil war in Sudan which ended in 2005 with the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement, brokered by IGAD.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement released Tuesday in Geneva that 10,000 of the more than 180,000 South Sudanese who have fled their homes since fighting broke out on Dec.15 have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
"As of December 30, a total of 4,693 South Sudanese had arrived in Ethiopia, 3,563 in Uganda, 950 in Kenya and at least several hundred in Sudan," the U.N. refugee agency said, adding that the conflict has "spread to seven of South Sudan's 10 states."