JUBA (AFP) - The United Nations is warning that violence was spreading in South Sudan, as fierce fighting in the world's youngest nation prompted the US to evacuate Americans and other foreigners.
There were fears in the international community that the poor and unstable nation, which became independent from Sudan in 2011, could slide back into civil war.
Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more terrified civilians have fled their homes since the fighting broke out on Sunday to seek protection at UN bases.
South Sudan's Red Cross reported at least 19 civilians killed in new clashes between rival army factions that have now spread outside the capital Juba, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told journalists in New York on Wednesday.
He said the fighting occurred in Bor, capital of eastern Jonglei state, and that tensions were rising in other states.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir has blamed the bloodshed on an attempted coup bid by his arch-rival, former vice president Riek Machar.
Kiir said he was ready to "sit down" with Machar to try to solve the crisis.
But Machar, who was sacked by the president in July and is now a fugitive, denied any coup attempt.
"Kiir wanted to use the alleged coup attempt in order to get rid of us," Machar told the Paris-based Sudan Tribune website in his first public remarks since the fighting erupted.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the UN Security Council that between 400 and 500 bodies had been reportedly taken to hospitals in Juba since the fighting broke out, while another 800 people had been wounded.
"There is a heavy toll, it is obvious," UN Security Council President Gerard Araud said, without confirming how many people had died.
In Juba, early shooting gave way to a lull later on. Many residents have spent the past two days barricaded in their homes, too afraid to move.
Others used pauses in the sporadic and often intense battles to flee to safer areas, including UN bases, despite Kiir's pleas that they return to their homes.