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South Sudan peace talks start; army repels rebel assault

JUBA, South Sudan -- Troops pushed back Friday an attack by rebels headed here as leaders from both sides meet in Ethiopia to negotiate an end to more than two weeks of fighting that has killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.

The army drove rebels north to Makuac in Jonglei state , army spokesman Philip Aguer said. Government troops plan to recapture the eastern Jonglei capital of Bor and also seize control of rebel-held Bentiu, the capital of the northern oil-rich Unity state, Aguer said. Former army commander Peter Gadet is leading an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 rebels, Aguer said.

Conflict broke out in mid-December after President Salva Kiir accused his former Vice President Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup. The violence spread swiftly. Thousands of people have died and about 200,000 have been displaced, according to United Nations estimates.

Efforts to mediate a truce are being led by the East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, which welcomed the start of proxy peace talks in a statement late . It said there have been "positive engagements by the negotiating teams of both parties." Former Foreign Minister Nhial Deng Nhial is representing the government, while Taban Deng Gai, the ex-governor of Unity state, heads a group of rebel negotiators, a spokesman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said. Direct talks are expected to begin .

The U.S. embassy in South Sudan recommended that all U.S. nationals leave, and organized a charter flight to take them from Juba to the nearest "safe haven" country, a statement on its website said.

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