HOPES of averting a full descent into civil war were fading in South Sudan last night.
In Washington, President Obama has ordered close to 100 troops into the country to protect US citizens and interests there, and warned Congress that he "may take further action" if the situation deteriorated. Donald Booth, Mr Obama's envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, arrived in the capital Juba yesterday to meet the president and opposition representatives. Last night, an Irish children's rights charity evacuated staff from the country.
Plan Ireland has warned that more than 60,000 people have been forced to flee the violent fighting between rebel and government forces which began last week and said it is concerned by the deepening humanitarian situation.
The Irish NGO, which has been operating in Sudan since 2006 and in South Sudan since the country won its independence in 2011, is now providing water to some 5,000 displaced people who have sought refuge in a Catholic church in the capital city of Juba.
Troops loyal to Salva Kiir, the president, were poised to start a major push on Bor and Bentiu, strategic towns now controlled by the mutinous soldiers allied behind Riek Machar, the former vice-president.
Both towns lie to the north of Juba where the military aircraft chartered by the British Foreign Office took off for Dubai carrying the last British citizens who had chosen to evacuate. Thousands of foreigners remain behind in Juba, where there are fears that they could become trapped over Christmas if the international airport closes again.
"It's a calculated risk that Juba will remain unaffected by fighting and we can stay and keep business ticking over," said Mark Dilley, an English logistician working for a private contractor in South Sudan.
Machar remains in hiding but will talk with Mr Booth by telephone. The chances of successful negotiations to pull the world's newest country back from the brink of civil war appeared slim yesterday.
"You've got the leaders saying they'll talk, then you've got their guys squaring up to each other in Bor or Bentiu or wherever," one Western diplomat evacuated to Nairobi said. "It does not bode well."
More than 500 people have died since the violence flared 10 days ago. Close to 100,000 people had fled their homes, Toby Lanzer, the UN's humanitarian coordinator said.
"The forces of Machar are still in control of the town, but we are readying to take back control," he said.
The clashes have left hundreds dead -- possibly many more -- and sent tens of thousands of people fleeing for protection in UN bases or to safer parts of the country, which only won independence from Sudan in 2011.
The young nation is oil-rich but impoverished and awash with guns after the long war with Khartoum, and has grappled with corruption and lawlessness since independence.
Gunmen from the Nuer ethnic group stormed a UN base last week killing two Indian peacekeepers and slaughtering at least 20 Dinka civilians who had fled to the compound for shelter, and there have been reports of ethnically-motivated killings and attacks in the capital Juba and elsewhere.
Britain, Kenya, Lebanon, Uganda and the US, have been evacuating their nationals. On Saturday four US servicemen were wounded when their aircraft came under fire in a rebel-held area. (© Daily Telegraph, London)