South Sudan's government and rebels finally began talks to end weeks of bloodletting on Friday after days of delay as the United States ordered out more of its embassy staff.
However, there was no face-to-face meeting, and fighting was reported near the key town of Bor, suggesting that a halt to fighting between President Salva Kiir's SPLA government forces and rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar is still a long way off.
Neighboring countries fear that the fighting, which quickly spread out from the capital Juba last month along ethnic faultlines, could destabilize East Africa, and the regional IGAD grouping is mediating the peace talks in Ethiopia.
The talks had been scheduled to begin in Addis Ababa on January 1, and finally made a slow start on Friday.
"Both delegations are meeting the mediators separately," said Dina Mufti, a spokesman for Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry. "We hope to bring both sides into face-to-face talks soon."
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South Sudan rebels were retreating as the army pushed to retake the key town of Bor, the military said Friday, as battles raged despite peace efforts to end the conflict.
"We have enough forces who will defeat the rebels within 24 hours," army spokesman Philip Aguer told reporters. "These forces — the rebels — are now retreating back."
But rebel spokesman Moses Ruai Lat, based in the northern state of Unity, said it was the government forces who were on the back foot and that his advancing comrades were already "close" to Juba.
US evacuates more personnel
Meanwhile, in a grim sign, the US Embassy in the capital Juba ordered the evacuation of more staff from the country.
An emergency message to US citizens on the Embassy's website said the move was due to a deteriorating security situation. It said there would be an evacuation flight on Friday arranged by the Department of State.
"We are not suspending our operations. We are just minimizing our presence," Ambassador Susan Page told Reuters.
More from GlobalPost: South Sudan government, rebels in Ethiopia for ceasefire talks
The Juba government, led by Kiir, and the rebels, led by Kiir's former vice president Machar, have agreed in principle to a ceasefire but neither side has indicated when they might lay down their arms.
More than a thousand people have been killed and 200,000 driven from their homes in three weeks of fighting that has raised the specter of a civil war pitting Kiir's ethnic Dinkas against Machar's Nuer.
The United Nations said it was planning for the number of displaced people to double in the next three months.