JUBA, South Sudan -- Fighting persisted in parts of South Sudan's oil-producing region as African leaders on Thursday tried to mediate between the country's president and the political rivals he accuses of attempting a coup that the government insists sparked violence threatening to destroy the world's newest country.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn met with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir on Thursday. A senior government official warned that Riek Machar, the former vice president who now allegedly commands renegade forces in the states of Unity and Upper Nile, had to renounce rebellion before the government could negotiate with him.
Michael Makuei Leuth, South Sudan's information minister, said the government has not yet established formal contact with Machar.
"For us, we are not talking with him," Leuth said, referring to Machar, whose whereabouts remain unknown. It was not possible to reach Machar, as his known phone numbers were switched off.
Government troops are trying to retake control of Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity state, from forces loyal to Machar. There was also reported fighting in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, according to Lueth. Upper Nile and Unity comprise the country's key oil-producing region, raising fears unrest there could cut off the country's economic lifeblood.
World leaders have urged the country's leaders to stop the violence in which thousands are feared killed. The United States, Norway and Ethiopia are leading efforts to open peace talks between Kiir and his political rivals. Kiir said in a Christmas address that he is willing to "dialogue" with all his opponents.
The United Nations is investigating reports of mass killings since violence began spreading across South Sudan after a fight among the presidential guards on Dec. 15, pitting soldiers from Kiir's Dinka ethnic group against those from the Nuer ethnic group of Machar. South Sudan's top U.N. humanitarian official, Toby Lanzer, said on Monday that he believes the death toll has surpassed 1,000.