JUBA: African leaders will on Friday discuss a spiralling crisis in South Sudan as the UN speeds up the deployment of extra troops in a bid to stem the violence sweeping across the world's youngest nation.
A day after the leaders of Kenya and Ethiopia claimed "good progress" in peace talks held in Juba, east African leaders are due to meet in Nairobi to further efforts to end the raging ethnic violence.
As the international community scrambles to halt the country's slide into civil war the United Nations on Thursday announced extra troops and "critical assets" like helicopters would be on the ground by Saturday.
"We are working on 48 hours delivery of several of the critical assets that we need," the world body's special envoy to the violence-wracked country, Hilde Johnson, told journalists via videoconference from Juba.
She stressed that the growing violence needed to be met with "unprecedented speed."
Tensions in the country, which won independence from Sudan only two years ago, erupted into violent conflict on December 15 amid a vicious fight between troops loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and fighters backing his sacked vice president, Riek Machar.
Fighting has now spread to half of South Sudan's 10 states.
The UN Security Council agreed Tuesday to nearly double the size of its mission known as UNMISS, allowing for up to 12,500 soldiers and 1,300 police, after the violence raged out of control.
Thousands of people have died, according to the United Nations, and tens of thousands of civilians are seeking protection at UN bases in the country.
While the conflict appeared to start as a power struggle -- with Kiir alleging a foiled coup attempt and Machar saying it was really a purge of potential challengers to the president -- it rapidly took on an ethnic dimension.
The violence now cleaves along a divide pitting members of Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer clansmen.
'Nightmares of the past' Johnson said the military was "overstretched" as it offered protection to some 50,000 terrified civilians seeking refuge at UN bases.
"These past 11 days have been a very trying time for South Sudan and for all citizens of this new-born nation," said Johnson.
"What happened this last week has for many of them brought back the nightmares of the past," in a country painstakingly built over decades of conflict and strife.
Meanwhile fighting raged in the oil-producing north, threatening the mainstay of the country's economy.
A South Sudan army spokesman, Philip Aguer, on Thursday told AFP troops were fighting forces allied to Machar inside the town of Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state.
He also said troops were preparing an offensive against Bentiu, the main town in oil-rich Unity State.
International diplomatic efforts are running parallel to the UN effort to try to rein in the violence.
The United States, which was instrumental in South Sudan winning independence, has warned it will cut off aid if Kiir is ousted in a coup.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn flew into Juba on Thursday for talks with Kiir.
On Friday the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development(IGAD) -- a regional grouping -- is due to hold talks in Nairobi.
Amid reports of bodies piled in mass graves and witness testimonies of massacres and summary executions and rapes, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has promised those responsible would be "held accountable".
The battles have been intense. An AFP correspondent who visited the recaptured town of Bor on Wednesday said bodies littered the streets and stores were looted.
The UN said aid agencies need $166 million (121 million euros) over the next three months to distribute food, manage camps for the 90,000 displaced and provide health and sanitation.
Johnson said the UN peacekeeping office was "working around the clock" to get assets for its South Sudan mission from other deployments in Africa, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan's Darfur region and Liberia.
China meanwhile said it would soon dispatch its special envoy for African affairs to South Sudan to make contact with all sides and help the situation quickly return to stability.