Opposition and government forces in South Sudan have reached a deal to cease hostilities according to East African leaders, as heavy fighting erupted in Bor, a hotly contested provincial capital.
Regional bloc IGAD—the Intergovernmental Authority on Development—says the upcoming peace talks in Adis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital will focus on ways of monitoring the truce and solving political problems that brought on the crisis.
Meanwhile, South Sudan’s foreign minister ruled out a powersharing deal with the opposition leader, former Vice President Riek Machar.
News of the cease-fire came as heavy fighting erupted in Bor, South Sudan's contested provincial capital of Jonglei state, as opposition troops took control of the town from government troops, the United Nations said Tuesday.
Government troops fought forces loyal to Machar as well as a pro-Machar tribal militia known as the "White Army," said military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer.
It’s unclear if word of the cease-fire announced had reached the warring factions. The conflict has left more than 1,000 dead and displaced 180,000 people in the last two weeks.
South Sudan's government had warned of a looming battle for Bor, which a renegade commander loyal to Machar briefly took before he was repulsed by government forces.
That pro-Machar commander, Peter Gadet, mobilized "elements of the White Army" in an apparently successful bid to retake the town, according to Aguer.
Bor is also the town where gunfire hit three United States military aircraft trying to evacuate American citizens on Dec. 21, wounding four U.S. service members.
The recapturing of Bor, which is only about 75 miles from South Sudan's capital, Juba, could give Machar an upper hand at the negotiating table.
Al Jazeera and wires
South Sudan has been hit by unrest since Dec. 15, when fighting among presidential guards spread across the country.
Although Juba has since become calm, violence persists in other parts of the oil-producing East African country. Rebel forces still control Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity state, and it appeared on Tuesday they would try to seize Bor from the 2,100 government troops who control the town, Aguer said.
IGAD leaders last week set Tuesday as the deadline for President Salva Kiir and Machar to start peace talks.
On Monday Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, said neighboring countries would unite to "defeat" Machar if he doesn't stop his rebellion.
Museveni said regional leaders "shall have to go for" Machar in the event he rejects peace talks, an apparent military threat that raised the danger of a wider regional conflict. The United Nations and the African Union have said they support IGAD's diplomatic efforts to end violence in the world's newest country.
Machar has called for a negotiated cease-fire and wants all his jailed political allies freed before starting talks.
Although Kiir insists the latest unrest was sparked by a coup mounted by soldiers loyal to Machar late Dec. 15, this account has been disputed by some officials with the ruling party who say violence broke out when presidential guards from Kiir's majority Dinka tribe tried to disarm guards from the Nuer ethnic group of Machar.
The U.N., South Sudan's government and other analysts say the dispute is political at its heart, but has since taken on ethnic overtones.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press