Addis Ababa - South Sudan's warring parties gathered in Ethiopia on Thursday for peace talks hoped to end nearly three weeks of conflict that has left thousands dead in the world's newest nation.
As government and rebel negotiating teams gathered at a luxury hotel in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, aid workers warned of a worsening crisis for civilians affected by the still ongoing conflict in South Sudan.
"We are ready for talks," a member of the rebel delegation told AFP, adding that they remained unclear exactly when meetings would start and in what format.
It was not clear if all members of the two delegations had arrived, suggesting that full face-to-face talks might not take place on Thursday.
Thousands of people are feared to have been killed in the fighting, pitching army units loyal to President Salva Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by ex-vice president Riek Machar.
Fighting erupted on 15 December when Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup.
Machar has denied this, in turn accusing the president of conducting a violent purge of his opponents, and the fighting has spread across the country, with the rebels seizing several areas in the oil-rich north.
The decision by the two sides to send delegations for initial ceasefire talks has been widely welcomed.
UN special envoy Hilde Johnson said in Juba it was "positive that they are sending delegations", underscoring the dire need for "reconciliation and healing" after the violence.
"We have seen terrible acts of violence in the past two weeks and as we know, if there is no one held accountable, there is a major risk that the violence can continue", she added.
Over 200 000 Sudanese refugees who had fled the fighting face a grim situation, with many aid workers who had been supporting them evacuated.
Conditions growing worse
On Tuesday rebels recaptured Bor, the capital of Jonglei state just 200km north of the capital Juba that has changed hands three times since the fighting erupted.
Civilians in the town now face "an increasingly dire situation: water, food and medicines are running out, sanitary conditions are worsening", UN humanitarian chief in the country Toby Lanzer said.
Close to 200 000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes, many seeking refuge with badly overstretched UN peacekeepers.
The conflict has also been marked by an upsurge of ethnic violence pitting members of Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer community, and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said that "atrocities are continuing to occur" across the country.
UNMISS reported "extra-judicial killings of civilians and captured soldiers" and the "discovery of large numbers of bodies" in Juba, Bor and Malakal, the main town in oil-producing Upper Nile state.