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Soldiers and rebels continued fighting in an oil-rich part of South Sudan today. This, despite an appeal from the African Union for a Christmas Day ceasefire. The country has been struggling to contain ethnic tensions since its independence from Sudan in 2011. Recent violence has left thousands dead and tens of thousands displaced and many are afraid to go back to their homes for fear of ethnic retribution.

NPR's Gregory Warner reports from a church in the capital, Juba, where the country's president called for peace and unity.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: On the Monday before last, the day after the capital of South Sudan erupted in massive gun battles, President Salva Kiir ditched his trademark black cowboy hat and suit and appeared on national television wearing army fatigues, vowing retribution against his former vice president, Riek Machar, who he claimed was the mastermind of a failed coup.

Today, in a speech at his Catholic church after Christmas services, President Kiir changed costume again, wearing traditional African flowing robes and urging peace and reconciliation. But he still seemed ever the bush commander that he was for most of his career, trying to boost the morale of his troops.

SALVA KIIR: What I want to tell you is that don't despair. It will be the last in the history of our young nation, that such things will not happen again.

(APPLAUSE)

WARNER: Kiir seemed relaxed, even making a joke when the power went out. He could afford to be magnanimous with his rivals - his army had just announced it had retaken the main rebel stronghold in the city of Bor, some 60 miles north of the capital. He's told U.S. Special Envoy Donald Booth he's willing to hold unconditional talks with rival, Riek Machar. The president did not mention his own tribe, the Dinka, nor Machar's tribe, the Nuer. But he said that any soldiers killing people in the streets weren't acting in his name.

KIIR: Anybody that goes to the residential areas to kill people or to loot the property of others hoping that he's doing it to support me must know that that person is not supporting me. In a sense, you are destroying me.

WARNER: Outside the church, people worried about what President Kiir did not say. He did not say that he had arrested any of the soldiers who unleashed a week of terror on Nuer civilians in Juba, including murder, rape, torture, and other abuses documented by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations. Similar abuses were said to be committed by Nuer soldiers against Dinka in other parts of the country.

The violence stemmed from a power struggle between President Kiir and Riek Machar, two war heroes who made their names fighting their mutual enemy, Sudan, now fighting each other in what has been described as politics gone wild.

JOK AUSTIN AYOC: They came as liberators and they came and took over power. But those who came and called themselves liberators are now the ones fighting themselves.

WARNER: Jok Justin Ayoc is the leader of a political party opposed to the ruling party that both Riek Machar and Salva Kiir are fighting to control.

AYOC: If you are in power for eight years and you cannot agree between yourselves, that is an organization which I say is there to loot the country.

WARNER: A delegation from the African Union is due in Juba tomorrow to foster negotiations between Kiir and Machar. The U.N. voted last night to send thousands more peacekeepers into the country ahead of party elections next year.

Lasulba Memo hosts an evening radio show on the local Eye Radio. He said people in South Sudan, especially in the ethnically mixed capital, are wary. More than 10,000 people have taken shelter in the U.N. compound, afraid to return home.

LASULBA MEMO: You want to look for people you can trust. So that's why there is now essential knowing who your neighbor is.

WARNER: He says they're losing trust in the party leaders who won their freedom but are now failing to protect their safety.

Gregory Warner, NPR, Juba.

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