Troops loyal to South Sudan's government prepared yesterday for an offensive on the last major town held by rebels, a day after recapturing the country's main oil hub. Meanwhile, the United Nations urged President Salva Kiir to release detainees in a show of goodwill to kick-start stalled peace talks in Ethiopia.
Riek Machar, the sacked vice- president who took the helm of the rebellion that formed after rival army units clashed in mid-December, remained defiant after losing Bentiu on Friday.
"We withdrew from Bentiu, but it was to avoid fighting in the streets and save civilian lives," he said from an undisclosed location.
He vowed to defend the central town of Bor, which is the capital of the flashpoint state of Jonglei and lies about 200 kilometres north of Juba, the capital.
"We fight on, we will continue the battle," he said.
The government has said it was mobilising thousands of troops to deal a final blow to the rebellion.
Even as thousands of civilians continued to cross the White Nile to flee the fighting around Bor, loyalist soldiers crossed the river in the other direction to return to battle.
A military spokesman for Machar insisted that while rebels had lost the town of Bentiu, the area's vital oil infrastructure was still in rebel hands.
Oil exports account for more than 90 per cent of South Sudan's revenues. Output has dropped at least 20 per cent since the fighting broke out in Juba on December 15.
The UN has said that "very substantially in excess" of 1,000 people had already been killed in the fighting, but the International Crisis Group think tank estimated the figure was likely closer to 10,000. Top UN aid chief in South Sudan Toby Lanzer has warned of an "unfolding humanitarian catastrophe" ravaging the country, two-and-a-half years after its birth.
On Friday, UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Kiir to accept Machar's demand that 11 of his aides jailed when the violence began be released before peace talks can begin.
"I called President Salva Kiir yesterday again and urged him to demonstrate leadership and political flexibility by immediately releasing political prisoners," he said. "South Sudan is at a crossroads."
The 15-nation Security Council also demanded the release of the detainees in order to "create an environment conducive to a successful dialogue" between Kiir and his former vice-president.