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Rebels surge anew in key South Sudan town

| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 8:54 p.m.

NAIROBI, Kenya — The fierce clashes to control the South Sudanese town of Bor on Tuesday represent a pivotal development in the 2-week-old conflict, giving rebels more clout in peace talks being held this week while potentially undermining President Salva Kiir's grip on the government and his ruling party.

After losing Bor little more than a week ago, loyalists of former vice president Riek Machar, who is leading the rebellion, stormed back in Tuesday morning, attacking government forces and seizing strategic parts of the town. By Tuesday night, it was unclear how much territory the rebels had captured, with some reports suggesting they were in full control.

Even as the fighting raged, American and African mediators were pushing the sides to attend peace talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and by afternoon, rebel and government officials announced they would send representatives, raising the prospects of a truce. Donald Booth, the U.S. special envoy to South Sudan, said in a statement that it is “an important first step, toward achieving a cessation of hostilities,” in the world's newest country.

Still, the situation in Bor remained tense, if unclear, lhours after the peace talks were announced, with both rebel and government forces refusing to back down. “There is fighting and confusion in Bor,” said South Sudanese military spokesman Philip Aguer. “We are not in contact with our commander.”

Taking over Bor could also deliver a strong blow to Kiir's ability to govern the country, analysts say. The town, the capital of the central state of Jonglei, is the stronghold of the Dinkas, Kiir's ethnic group and the largest one in South Sudan.

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