JUBA, South Sudan — Cluster bombs. Rebel forces advancing on a major city. Accusations of continuing attacks. The cease-fire in South Sudan appears to not be holding.
Negotiators for the two warring sides appeared to put a plug in some of the vicious violence by signing a cease-fire on Jan. 23. But the fighting has continued since then, and may even be ramping up.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday said he is deeply concerned about "ongoing fighting and skirmishes" in two states inside South Sudan.
An internal security report from an aid group forum in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, said new fighting has been reported outside of Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile, an oil-producing state. Aid groups are being advised to exercise extreme caution in the city because of nearby rebel forces.
"The exact numbers and positions of this force remains unknown, but it is thought that the city is partially surrounded from the south, west and east. Furthermore, it has been suggested that were an attack to occur, the objective would not be looting but revenge for alleged abuses by government forces in Malakal's recent battles," the report said.
The same report said an attack by rebels north of Bor, a contested city in Jonglei state, is alleged to have killed more than 60 people, including many civilians. Authorities were not able to provide any more details from a region where reliable information is difficult to come by.
The U.N.'s leader for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, upgraded the South Sudan crisis to a Level 3 emergency on Wednesday. On Tuesday the top U.N. aid official in the country warned of the potential of famine in the country if continuing violence prevents residents from planting and harvesting crops.
Peace talks were supposed to re-start in Ethiopia this week but have gotten off to a slow start because rebels say not all elements of the cease-fire deal are being implemented. On Wednesday negotiators were moving from the capital, Addis Ababa, to the resort city of Debre Zeit, while Kenya's president said seven South Sudanese political detainees being hosted in Kenya were to fly to Ethiopia on Wednesday for the talks, a key rebel demand.
Nhial Deng Nhaial, head of the government negotiating team in Ethiopia, said the government of South Sudan has honored the cease-fire commitment.
"However, we are deeply disappointed and dismayed by the flagrant and repeated violations of the agreement by the other party," he said in an interview Wednesday. He added there needs to be the urgent formation of a monitoring and verification team that would monitor the cease-fire deal.
A day earlier, Gen. Taban Deng Gai, the chief negotiator for the rebels, said he was profoundly disappointed in South Sudan President Salva Kiir for violating the cease-fire. The rebels want Ugandan forces providing air support to South Sudan to leave the country. There is no indication that will happen anytime soon.
The U.N. secretary-general also condemned the use of cluster bombs, remnants of which he said were found last week by U.N. anti-mine staff. Such bombs are unreliable and indiscriminate and have the potential to cause long-term danger to civilians and vehicles, Ban's spokesman said in a statement.
South Sudan descended into chaos in mid-December as fighting broke out between troops loyal to the government and rebels who support the former vice president. Thousands have been killed in violent rampages that often have taken on ethnic dimensions.
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 after more than 20 years of civil war but had lingering internal grievances that were never addressed.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders on Tuesday said the deteriorating security situation around Leer in Unity state is having "devastating consequences" for thousands of people hiding in the countryside.
"The situation on the ground is chaotic and hostile and it is very difficult to know where the civilians have fled to from Leer," says Raphael Gorgeu, the group's South Sudan head of mission.
Associated Press reporter Elias Meseret contributed from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.