UN in new South Sudan peace plea as reinforcements loom
The UN has renewed its call for rival forces in South Sudan to lay down their arms and says it expects the first UN reinforcements to arrive in 48 hours.
The plea came as South Sudan's President Salva Kiir met the leaders of neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia in an effort to defuse the conflict.
Government officials say a number of oil wells are now in rebel hands.
Violence erupted 11 days ago between forces loyal to the president and those backing his ex-deputy Riek Machar.
UN special representative Hilde Johnson urgently called on the country's political leaders "to give peace a chance".
"The nation that [was] painstakingly built over decades of conflict and strife is at stake," she said, speaking via a video link from South Sudan's capital, Juba.
Ms Johnson said "well over 1,000" people had been killed since the start of the violence on 15 December and the casualty figures were likely to rise.
She said she expected some UN military reinforcements and critically needed equipment within 48 hours.'Lawless'
Ms Johnson said there had been heavy fighting in Malakal and Bor, while the town of Bentiu had become calmer.
The Bishop of Malakal, Hilary Garang, said the situation in the main town in Upper Nile state was one of lawlessness.
"There is no government functioning, there is no light, there is no water and people are fleeing, are going away. The town is divided in two," he told the BBC's Newshour programme.
"The two sides are taking positions and fighting can erupt any time they choose.
"Today there is heavy shelling. About five shells fell in the middle of the town in part of the market and also on some houses and even close to my residence where I am, near the church," Bishop Garang said.
The fighting is also affecting oil production, which accounts for 98% of government revenue.
"Some oil wells are in the hands of rebel soldiers loyal to... Machar and we fear they may cause damage to the facilities and the environment," Petroleum Minister Stephen Dhieu Dau told Reuters news agency.
He said the Thar Jath oil field in Unity state had been captured by the rebels.'Political conflict'
Ms Johnson said there had been internal tension within the governing Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) before the outbreak of violence.
But, she said, no-one had expected "the unravelling of [South Sudan's] stability so quickly".
Ms Johnson said the speed, gravity and scale of the violence had caught everyone by surprise.
She insisted that while the rival leaders came from different ethnic groups - Mr Kiir is a Dinka and Mr Machar is from the Nuer tribe - the conflict was political.
She said the United Nations was working around the clock to get reinforcements into the country.
On Tuesday, the UN Security Council decided to boost the existing UN force (Unmiss) of around 7,000 peacekeepers and police to about 14,000.Coup allegations
The violence first erupted after a meeting of the SPLM's high council on 15 December.
President Kiir accused the former vice-president, who had been sacked in July, of plotting a coup.
Mr Machar denied any involvement and said the accusations were an attempt by Mr Kiir to get rid of his political rivals.
The fighting quickly spread to half of Sudan's 10 states.
On Thursday, President Kiir held talks with Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, currently head of the East African Community, in an effort to find a negotiated solution to the conflict.
However, South Sudan Information Minister Makuei Lueth told Associated Press no contact with Mr Machar had yet been established.
South Sudan has struggled to achieve a stable government since becoming independent from Sudan in 2011.