salva kiir.jpg
Photograph: Photo by Day Donaldson, used under CC BY

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir said Tuesday he wanted to negotiate with former rebel leader Riek Machar to restore peace after fighting between their forces killed hundreds in the capital Juba.

"Now is the time for diplomacy, President Salva Kiir is ready, he is in the palace to wait for whoever wants to come for diplomacy, so that the situation is fixed and peace is salvaged," presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said.

He added that Kiir and Machar - who was sworn in as Kiir's deputy in April under a peace agreement to end the civil conflict between the rivalling sides - had spoken on the phone on Monday.

Juba was meanwhile calm after Kiir declared a unilateral ceasefire on Monday, following several days of fighting.

Machar told local radio station Eye Radio he had also ordered his forces to observe a ceasefire. A Machar spokesman said he did not know where the vice president was and was unable to comment.

Ateny said soldiers had returned to barracks and that the airport had reopened for international flights.

Jeremiah Young, an aid worker with World Vision, said he was not aware of any renewed fighting. People were beginning to venture outside, though “we are not even close to coming back to normality,” Young said by telephone.

Other witnesses reported shops opening.

In Jebel neighbourhood, where the army reportedly attacked Machar's positions, most of the shops have been burned or looted, said Mawien Deng Atak, an army soldier patrolling there.

The presidency had on Sunday put the death toll at 270 since Friday, but the figure was now believed to be higher.

The fatalities include two UN peacekeepers, who the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said were Chinese, and eight people killed in or near UN camps for displaced people.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken with regional leaders about the conflict, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday in Washington.

"We're staying on top of this. We're watching it very, very closely," Kirby said, adding that the US embassy is reducing its staff, but only non-emergency US embassy personnel are leaving. The embassy is not being evacuated, and the ambassador is still there, he said.

The United States also continues to press the leaders in South Sudan to end the fighting and to provide humanitarian aid to people in need.

Thousands of people fled the fighting to churches, schools, aid agency compounds, suburbs or towards neighbouring Uganda. Young said that an estimated 30,000 of the displaced people had remained in Juba.

The fighting was also reported to have spread to other towns.

Theresa Jumbili, a resident of Wau in the north-west, said she had fled gunfire to a cathedral. "There were gunshots in the early morning, but it has stopped now," she said.

Clashes erupted between army and the rebels on Thursday, followed by fighting on Friday near the presidential palace.

The fresh outbreak of violence dealt a blow to hopes of peace after Kiir and Machar signed a peace agreement in August 2015 and formed a national unity government in April.

A power struggle between the two escalated into an armed conflict in December 2013, killing tens of thousands and displacing more than 2 million people.

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