South Sudan's Bentiu city residents flee government advance

The BBC's Alastair Leithead says it appears government troops are moving on Bentiu

Thousands of people are fleeing the South Sudanese city of Bentiu amid fears of a government offensive to recapture the oil-rich area from rebels, a BBC reporter there says.

Many people are taking refuge in a UN base in Bentiu, says Alastair Leithead.

Meanwhile, ceasefire talks between the two sides appear to be deadlocked over the government's imprisonment of 11 alleged coup plotters.

At least 1,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Nearly 200,000 people have been forced from their homes in the fighting, which has seen ethnic violence between the Dinka and Nuer communities.

Many foreign governments have evacuated their nationals, while many South Sudanese are crossing by land into neighbouring states.

The conflict broke out in mid-December when President Salva Kiir accused his ex-deputy, Riek Machar, of plotting a coup.

South Sudanese soldiers gather for a briefing at the army general headquarters in Juba on 8 January 2014 The conflict has split the army in the world's newest state
A displaced child in Juba, South Sudan (7 January 2013) Fighting has left nearly 200,000 people homeless
Rebel negotiators in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 4 January 2014 Mabior Garang (c) is part of the rebel delegation in talks

Mr Machar denied the allegation, and called for the unconditional release of 11 of his allies who were detained over the alleged plot.

On Wednesday, regional mediators Seyoum Mesfin and Lazurus Sumbeiywo flew out of South Sudan's capital, Juba, after talks with Mr Kiir.

'Heavy artillery fire'

However, they failed to break the deadlock over the fate of the detainees, a key obstacle to the two sides negotiating a ceasefire, Juba-based journalist Mading Ngor told the BBC's Focus on Africa.

Mr Kiir offered to free the detainees to take part in the regionally-brokered talks, if the discussions were moved from Ethiopia to Juba.

However, he said they would have to return to their places of detention at night.

Start Quote

South Sudan is facing a serious crisis that comes on top of a situation that was already difficult”

End Quote Peter Maurer ICRC head

This offer was immediately rejected by Mr Machar's allies.

Government troops are believed to be about 25 kilometres (16 miles) from Bentiu, capital of Unity state, our correspondent says.

Unity state is rich in oil, the main foreign exchange earner of South Sudan.

Oil production has dropped by 20% since the conflict started.

Bentiu and Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, are the two main centres under rebel control.

Fighting was continuing around Bor, as government forces tried to recapture it, army spokesman Philip Aguer said, AFP news agency reports.

It says its reporter reached the town of Minkammen, 25 kilometres south of Bor, and the area was flooded with fleeing civilians.

Heavy artillery fire could also be heard in the distance, AFP reports.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the humanitarian situation in South Sudan is dire.

"South Sudan is facing a serious crisis that comes on top of a situation that was already difficult," ICRC president Peter Maurer said, at the end of a three-day visit to the country.

"It is unquestionable that the needs are dire, but their full scope is unknown," Mr Maurer added in a statement.

South Sudan is the world's newest state.

It became independent in 2011 after seceding from Sudan.

Mr Kiir comes from the largest ethnic group, the Dinka, while Mr Machar is a Nuer.

Both leaders have influential backers in the other group, even though the conflict has taken an ethnic dimension.

Mabior Garang, a Dinka, is a key member of the rebel delegation in talks in Ethiopia. He is the son of veteran southern leader John Garang, who died in 2005.

bbc map Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
News graphic showing the ethnic groups of South Sudan Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Map showing the location of oil fields in South Sudan Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north
Map showing the geography of South Sudan The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Map showing access to water in South Sudan After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Map showing education levels in South Sudan Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Map showing food insecurity rates in South Sudan Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight - this compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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