JUBA: African mediators said they held "productive" talks on Friday with South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, trying to prevent an almost week-long conflict plunging the world's newest nation into a civil war along ethnic faultlines.
In a sign of the nervousness among South Sudan's neighbours, Ugandan soldiers flew in to help evacuate their citizens. Two anonymous military sources said they would also help secure the capital, which lies about 75 km (50 miles) from Uganda's border.
The United Nations said on Thursday a crowd of Nuer tribesmen breached a U.N. compound in Jonglei State north of the capital and it had reports that some locals sheltering there were killed. It also said two Indian peacekeepers died.
Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, has accused his former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer who was sacked in July, of attempting to seize power by force.
Fighting that began on Sunday in the capital Juba has swiftly spread, fuelled by ethnic loyalties.
Kiir has said he is ready for dialogue. Machar told French radio he was ready to "negotiate his departure from power" and said the army could force Kiir out unless he quit.
"We had a very productive meeting with his excellency President Salva Kiir and we will continue consultations," Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom, who is leading the African delegation, told reporters before returning to talks.
The team included ministers from Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti and Somali, and African Union and United Nations representatives. It is the first peace initiative since clashes erupted.
The U.N. Security Council meets on Friday to discuss South Sudan and to hear a briefing from deputy peacekeeping chief Edmond Mulet.
"President Kiir has always said that he doesn't want his people to turn back again to war," Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told Reuters. "That is why the government has been negotiating with a lot of militia groups."
The fighting worries neighbouring states, who fear new instability in a volatile region. It threatens the halting steps towards the creation of a functioning state in a a country which declared independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war.
"Some troops from (Uganda's) Special Forces Command - I can estimate in hundreds - left for Juba yesterday," said a source in the Command, a unit led by President Yoweri Museveni's son.
"They will mainly be involved in securing the capital," he said. Some had gone by plane and others would travel by road.
"They're not going to participate in the skirmishes between Kiir and Machar."
President Barack Obama said the United States had sent 45 military peprsonnel to protect the embassy and U.S. employees.
"This force will remain in South Sudan until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed," he said in a letter to Congress.
Fighting has spread to vital oil areas. Soldiers from the rival factions clashed at a barracks near the town of Bentiu, capital of the oil-producing Unity State.
Some 200 oil workers sought refuge in a U.N. base on Thursday. China National Petroleum Corp, one of the main operators, said it was flying 32 workers out of one field to Juba, according the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
A Kenyan transporters' body said trade through landlocked South Sudan had ground to a halt, with hundreds of trucks stuck at border crossings with Uganda and Kenya.
As fighting has moved out of the capital, it is increasingly driven by ethnic loyalties as well as political rivalries.
"So we have a military coup in our hands which is causing a lot of instability in the country and is being played up in certain areas as if it is a racial ethnic war, which is not the case," Benjamin said.
"We don't want to encourage what happened in Rwanda," he said, referring to the 1994 genocide there.
The United Nations said on Tuesday it understood up to 500 people had been killed in clashes, but has not given a death toll since then. It says about 34,000 people have fled to bases of the UNMISS peacekeeping mission since fighting started.
Clashes in Bor town, where Nuer in 1991 massacred Dinka, have fuelled the fears of an all-out ethnic war. Nuer commander and Machar ally, Peter Gadet, now controls Bor, officials said.
A U.N. official said Luo Nuer youths, from a sub-group of Machar's Nuer ethnic group, had assaulted the Akobo base in Jonglei, saying there were believed to be some deaths.
Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny told Reuters that 54 people from Kiir's Dinka ethnic group were killed by what he called Machar loyalists in the Akobo raid.
Political tensions between the two politicians had been mounting since Kiir, facing growing public frustration about the slow pace of development, sacked Machar.
The former vice president said he wanted to run for office and accused Kiir of acting like a dictator.
Speaking to France's RFI radio, Machar said that unless Kiir quit office "I think the people will depose him, in particular, influential people in the army."
Before the fighting erupted, Kiir accused his rivals of reviving the kind of splits in the ranks of ruling SPLM party that led to led to bloodshed in 1991. But analysts said he had raised the stakes by branding initial clashes a coup attempt.