Bentiu tense as South Sudan troops advance

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Media captionThe BBC's Alastair Leithead reports from outside Bentiu

With mats and mattresses on their heads, pots and plastic bags in their hands, the people just kept walking.

Some also drove cattle through the red dust kicked up by the white United Nations armoured vehicle that led the convoy through Bentiu town as the sun set.

They were all heading the same way - south - away from the advancing government troops intent on retaking the city from rebel forces.

When the split between President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar turned to violence, the army's 4th Division stationed in Bentiu switched sides and backed the rebels.

For two weeks the troops from the Nuer ethnic group have controlled the capital of oil-producing Unity State. But change seems to be coming.

The markets were being closed up, the civilians were all heading out of town and the rebel troops were left looting whatever they could break into.

One soldier had clearly found alcohol as he staggered drunk across an open patch of land, barely hanging on to his rocket-propelled grenade launcher and ammunition.

A tank stood ready at a strategic bridge, but a handful of soldiers were squabbling amongst themselves in front of it.

Ammunition destroyed

Apart from that bridge there seemed to be no defensive line, just scatterings of armed soldiers on the backs of vehicles - some of the 4x4s stolen from aid agencies or the UN.

But the big indicator of which way this fight for Bentiu may go came early in the morning.

At first it sounded like a couple of artillery shells landing and the battle appeared to have begun, but then the explosions kept coming.

Image caption What seemed like an attack was ammunition being destroyed

A huge plume of smoke drifted up from just one spot, balls of fire could be seen leaping above the tree line, rockets looping up and plunging down. It was an ammunition dump.

The 4th Division commander said he was destroying what his men could not carry, so it would not be used against them - not the confidence you might expect from a commanding officer.

The UN compound in Bentiu is just up the road from the 4th Division headquarters and after being many kilometres from the front line, is now between the rebels, the bridge and the tank… and the advancing army.

There are far more than 8,000 people here now. Many are Dinka, the biggest ethnic group in South Sudan and the tribe of the president.

They claimed that the night the violence started they were targeted by the Nuer.

Among them are 2,000 Sudanese traders caught up in the crisis and desperate for their country to send planes to take them home.

Now that government troops appear to be closing in, the latest arrivals here have been Nuer - afraid of what may happen if the town changes hands.

The food stocks in the base are low, the number of tents limited, and the sun brutally hot.

Image caption A UN convoy set off to bring food from another compound

With a battle heading their way the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator, Toby Lanzer, decided to go into the city and bring out tonnes of food from a World Food Programme warehouse on the other side of town.

In itself it was a risky trip, escorted by the white armoured vehicles and Mongolian peacekeeping troops.

But on arrival at the compound, priorities changed.

Perhaps 1,000 people had come in the night to seek refuge and now the trucks were to be used to transport them to the camp - women and children first, then the elderly and the sick, the disabled and finally the men.

But there was the sound of gunfire close by and as time ticked away the risk of being caught in fighting only increased.

The convoy moved slowly back through the town, over the bridge and up to the compound.

Everyone was searched as they passed through the narrow, razor-wire protected, entrance.

The mission to bring food brought only more people, but at least here they hope to be safe from the fighting or from any retribution.

Image caption Segregation is enforced inside the camp to prevent ethnic clashes

Inside, two signposts summed up how much of a setback the reconciliation between the communities here has suffered.

One pointed left and said Dinka, the other pointed right and said Nuer.

The political crisis that forced open historical tribal rifts has scared a lot of people and for the sake of security, segregation is only being reinforced.

It is quiet at the moment on the road outside the UN compound and Bentiu is eerily quiet as those few people who remain look furtively up the road, no longer wondering if, but when the government forces will arrive.

There may well be a fight, but the UN staff here - and the thousands seeking refuge - hope the shells and the bullets will be traded elsewhere, or not at all.

The fighting here and in the other rebel-held town of Bor continues to injure or kill many soldiers and civilians.

More than 230,000 people have been displaced by the fighting or are in UN compounds across the country and while peace talks continue to fail the people, the crisis will only deepen.

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