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JUBA (Reuters) - South Sudan will postpone a presidential election set for 2015 as the country's warring factions will need time to reconcile, President Salva Kiir said, with a vote possibly taking place as late as 2018.
South Sudan's conflict threatens to tear apart a nation that only became independent from Sudan in 2011 and has curbed its lifeblood oil production. Ethnic divisions have been a significant driver of the violence, which pits Kiir's Dinka people against the Nuer of his former deputy Riek Machar.
Kiir and Machar, whom the president sacked in July 2013, signed a new ceasefire pact in Ethiopia on Friday and pledged to hold further talks about forming an interim government to end nearly five months of bloodshed.
That plan, however, has got off to a shaky start with both sides swiftly accusing each other of violating the truce.
"Elections will not be held in 2015, because reconciliation between the people will have to take time," Kiir said at Juba airport late on Sunday.
"The election (timetable) has to be extended for two or three years, so this interim government would remain in power and elections can be held in 2017 or 2018."
Kiir said he would have preferred elections to be held in 2015 "so that these can come back and contest" it.
South Sudan's army and rebel forces traded blame on Sunday for breaches of the ceasefire hours after it took effect - fighting that will frustrate international mediators who had pressured both sides to stop the ethnically-fuelled conflict.
The rebels on Monday said government soldiers had taken control of Bentiu, capital of the oil-rich Unity state and the site of an ethnic massacre that in April raised fears of the conflict spiraling into genocide.
Rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said government troops carried out "extensive shelling" of villages around Bentiu and accused Kiir of "acting with impunity".
Colonel Philip Aguer, spokesman for government forces, said there had been no fighting in South Sudan on Monday.
The United Nations has warned the bloodshed could descend into a full-blown genocide and trigger a famine since the violence has prevented subsistence farmers from planting crops in some of the country's most fertile regions.
South Sudan's economy has been hit hard by the violence, with vital oil output down by a third and cash for development and many other basic services diverted to fund the war effort.
IGAD, the regional body mediating the talks, has called on both sides to stop fighting so aid convoys can reach some remote areas ahead of the rainy season, which renders much of the Texas-sized country inaccessible by road.
The United States and European Union states, which have been pressing hard for a deal, welcomed Friday's agreement and called on both leaders to issue immediate orders for calm.
Western powers were instrumental in South Sudan gaining independence and trumpeted its creation as a policy success.
Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by James Macharia and Mark Heinrich