NAIROBI: South Sudan's neighbours threw their weight behind President Salva Kiir on Friday after 13 days of fighting in the world's newest state, saying they would not accept any attempt to overthrow him and his democratically elected government.
Western powers and regional governments fear clashes between government forces and those loyal to Kiir's former deputy could lead to an all-out ethnic-based civil war that would pose a danger to a fragile region with notoriously porous borders.
Addressing regional leaders at an emergency summit on South Sudan held by the east African body Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta urged Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar to seize "the small window of opportunity" and start peace talks.
"Let it be known that we in IGAD will not accept the unconstitutional overthrow of a duly and democratically elected government in South Sudan. Violence has never provided optimum solutions," Kenyatta said, according to a statement released by the State House.
Machar, who served as vice president of South Sudan until Kiir sacked him in July, has accepted peace talks on condition that his detained political allies are released - a demand Kiir so far has shown no intention of meeting.
Kenyatta said South Sudan and regional governments had "no time" to find a solution to what he called a political problem within the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party which had degenerated into a violent confrontation that risked taking "a dire ethnic direction".
Violence erupted in South Sudan's capital Juba on Dec. 15 and has quickly spread, dividing the landlocked country of 10.8 million along ethnic lines between the Nuer - Machar's people - and the Dinka, to whom Kiir belongs.
The head of the U.N. mission in Sudan said well over 1,000 people had already been killed.
Kenyatta said a military solution had little chance of succeeding in South Sudan.
"The present crisis, if not contained, will produce millions of internally displaced persons and refugees and set back this region immeasurably," Kenyatta told the regional leaders.