South Sudan's warring factions have held preliminary meetings ahead of the official start of negotiations in neighbouring Ethiopia, mediators said.
Dina Mufti, a spokesman for Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry, said the introductory meetings were necessary to bridge the groups' differences ahead of direct talks expected to start tomorrow. The talks are being held at Addis Ababa's Sheraton Hotel.
Meanwhile, both sides continue to fight in the world's newest country and the US Embassy in Juba, the capital, said today that the Department of State has ordered a "further drawdown" of embassy personnel because of the "deteriorating security situation". An evacuation flight was being arranged today, the statement added.
South Sudan's government has declared a state of emergency in Unity and Jonglei, two states whose capitals are under rebel control. Yesterday the central government warned that rebels loyal to ousted vice president Riek Machar were preparing to march to Juba from Bor, the capital of Jonglei state that has been the scene of fierce fighting between government troops and rebels.
South Sudan's military said yesterday it had sent reinforcements to Bor, 75 miles (120km) from Juba.
President Salva Kiir insists the fighting was sparked by a coup attempt mounted by soldiers loyal to Mr Machar on December 15.
But that account has been disputed by some officials of the ruling party who say the violence began when presidential guards from Mr Kiir's Dinka ethnic group tried to disarm those from the Nuer group of Mr Machar. From there, violence spread across the country, with forces loyal to Mr Machar defecting and seizing territory from loyalist forces.
South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension and a power struggle within the ruling party that escalated after Mr Kiir dismissed Mr Machar as his vice president in July. The rebels back Mr Machar, who is now a fugitive sought by the military.
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal. Before that, the south fought decades of war with Sudan.