Fighting Intensifies In South Sudan Despite Calls For Cease-Fire

There are reports of heavy fighting around the South Sudanese city of Bor, north of the capital Juba. Rebel forces and a feared tribal militia are said to be advancing on the city, and are already in control of territory around the sprawling U.N. base where thousands of displaced people have taken refuge. Meanwhile, East African leaders are pushing for a cease-fire and peace talks.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. Both sides in the conflict in South Sudan agreed to meet tomorrow in Ethiopia to discuss a cease-fire. It's hoped that a speedy end to the power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ousted deputy Riek Machar can avert an all-out ethnic civil war. But even as both sides prepare to negotiate, a fierce battle was underway for control of the strategic city of Bor. NPR's Gregory Warner reports.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The fighting began at daybreak, when troops loyal to Riek Machar attacked the city of Bor. The first and fiercest battle took place just southwest of the city, where the United Nations has a base for peacekeepers and 15,000 civilians from the town have also taken refuge there for fear of exactly this kind of onslaught. The spokesman for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, Joseph Contreras, said the U.N. mission was unharmed. But the rebels had an intense firefight with the South Sudanese army, the SPLA.

JOSEPH CONTRERAS: Our colleagues on the ground in Bor were hearing tank fire, rockets and small arms fire.

WARNER: He said by late morning, Machar's rebels had overwhelmed the army and fully controlled the area, including two key intersections and the airstrip. Then the rebel forces split in two groups. One headed to the governor's office.

CONTRERAS: While other elements of those forces headed into Bor town.

WARNER: Some of those forces were defected SPLA soldiers. But some wore no uniform at all, except for a white ash said to be smeared on their skin to prevent bug bites. These were the so-called white army, a band of thousands of youths of the Nuer tribe loyal to Riek Machar. Contreras said that the contingent that passed the U.N. compound were mostly soldiers, so they left the compound alone. But the SPLA spokesman, Colonel Aguer, said that the fighting tactics of the white army were different, including using civilians as human shields.

COL. AGUER: (Through translator) These forces of Riek Machar are using human shields to overwhelm the forces around. But the SPLA is determined to fight them back.

WARNER: Bor is strategic because it's a key access point to the capital, Juba. But it's also a place inhabited mostly by Dinka, that is the tribe of the president, Salva Kiir. Freelance journalist Philip Thon in Juba has been trying to get his mother out of Bor. Just yesterday she fled with many others to a swampy area north of the city.

PHILIP THON: (Through translator) She cannot swim. And if anything happens, I don't know what will happen to her. I don't know.

WARNER: He says he's been talking to people in Bor who describe the white army shooting at civilians and then finishing off the injured with machetes. Of course, Machar's battle for Bor could be a preview of negotiation, a way to gain leverage before tomorrow's peace talks. But the more atrocities committed on both sides, the harder it will be to find a political settlement. President Salva Kiir told the BBC today there will be no a power sharing agreement with Riek Machar.

PRESIDENT SALVA KIIR: It is not an option. This man has rebelled. I came because I was elected by the people. Elections are coming in 2015. Why did he not wait? So that he goes through that same process? If he wins the elections he then comes to this office.

WARNER: Kiir's critics say that he used his executive office and his chairmanship of the ruling party to stop criticism and stifle that democratic process. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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