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Fighting rages in South Sudan as UN moves to boost force

JUBA -- South Sudan's army battled rebel forces Wednesday in one key town while troops flushed out insurgents in another after its recapture, as the U.N. 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 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 the recapture of Bor late Tuesday 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.

Information Minister Michael Makwei denied rebel claims they had seized it.

“There is fighting now in Malakal since morning between the government forces and the rebels,” Makwei told AFP. “It is not true that the rebels have taken over.”

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 U.N. bases seeking shelter.

The U.N. 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.

In Juba, the U.N. mission was more cautious, confirming the 15 killed but saying it was still “investigations reports of such atrocities.”

The official toll nationwide has stood at 500 dead for days, but aid workers have said the number killed was likely far higher.

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A Kenyan woman holds her baby as she waits at the immigration hall after being evacuated from South Sudan by the Kenyan Defense Forces at Wilson Airport in Nairobi, Kenya on Tuesday, Dec. 24. (AP)

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