South Sudan's army battled rebel forces in one key town yesterday while troops flushed out insurgents in another after its recapture, as the UN moves to double its peacekeeping force to stave off civil war.
Thousands are believed to have been killed in more than a week of violence, with reports of bodies piled in mass graves amid escalating battles between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those backing his rival Riek Machar, a former vice president who was sacked in July.
Government forces celebrated late Tuesday the recapture of Bor from forces loyal to Machar after the army stormed the strategic town, but battles raged elsewhere including Malakal, capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state.
An AFP correspondent who visited Bor Wednesday said that bodies littered the streets and stores were looted, with occasional gun shots still ringing out even as civilians poured back into the town to return home.
Fighting has spread to half the country's 10 states, the United Nations said, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to the countryside and others flooding UN bases seeking shelter.
The UN humanitarian chief in the country, Toby Lanzer, said Tuesday there was "absolutely no doubt in my mind that we're into the thousands" of dead, the first clear indication of the scale of the conflict engulfing the world's youngest country.
Earlier, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said a mass grave had been found in the rebel-held town of Bentiu and cited reports of at least two more in Juba.
Late on Tuesday, the UN Security Council voted to send nearly 6,000 extra soldiers and police to South Sudan, nearly doubling the UNMISS force to 12,500 troops and 1,323 civilian police.
The unrest has taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer.
South Sudan gained independence in July 2011 to become the youngest country in the world, born out of a bloody decades-long struggle for independence from Sudan. It remains a fragile state with deep ethnic divisions.