Khartoum – Fighting in Sudan's volatile oil-producing border state of South Kordofan brought more deaths and displacement on Wednesday, the United Nations said, amid signs that the violence was spreading.
"We know that more people have been killed overnight and this morning in (the state capital) Kadugli. But we don't have casualty figures," Hua Jiang, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), told AFP.
On Tuesday, the UN reported at least six deaths from clashes in Kadugli, four of whom where Sudanese police officers, and the other two civilians.
A doctor in the southeastern part of the state told the independent Sudan Radio Service that the Haiban county hospital where he works had received the bodies of 10 people killed in the fighting and a number of wounded.
Jiang said the fighting, which started on Sunday between northern troops and northern elements within the former southern rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), was currently most fierce in the state capital.
But the northern army, or SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces), has also been shelling SPLA positions in the hills around Kadugli since Tuesday, and the two sides exchanged fire overnight in Deleng, a town about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Kadugli, the UN spokeswoman said.
"The IDPs (internally displaced persons) are now our main concern," she added.
Georg Charpentier, the UN's chief humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, said the security situation for civilians was deteriorating and called for an immediate halt to the fighting.
The United Nations says an estimated 7000 people have now sought protection in and around the UNMIS peacekeeping compound, near the airport.
In addition, since Monday, all UN agencies and international NGOs have suspended their operations in Kadugli and evacuated their staff to the UNMIS base.
Tension has been escalating in South Kordofan, the north's only oil-producing state, which borders the south and was a key battleground during the 1983-2005 civil war.
The state is awash with weapons and retains strong links to the south, especially among the indigenous Nuba peoples who fought on the side of the southern rebels even though their homeland, the Nuba Mountains, lies in the north.
Khartoum has repeatedly ordered some 40,000 northern SPLA troops, which it says are illegal, to either disarm or redeploy south of the 1956 borders before southern independence next month, threatening unspecified consequences if they fail to do so.
Senior members of the SPLA's political wing say such unilateral security decisions are behind the latest fighting in South Kordofan.
But there are growing concerns that SPLA units in the state are operating independently, without a central command, especially since the most senior SPLA official, the former deputy governor Abdelaziz al-Hilu, fled Kadugli at the beginning of the week.
SPLM officials say he did so because of "provocative" actions by the northern army, including the deployment of tanks in the center of Kadugli.