By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 23 (Reuters) - U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon asked the U.N. Security Council on Monday to send 5,500 more peacekeepers to South Sudan as soon as possible to protect civilians from worsening violence that threatens to plunge Africa's youngest country into civil war.
Ban made the recommendation for the two-thirds increase in the size of the force in a letter to the 15-member council, in which he also called for 423 more police officers. Currently some 6,700 U.N. troops and 670 police officers make up the U.N. force in South Sudan, which is known as UNMISS.
The Security Council is due to vote on Tuesday afternoon on a resolution to approve the increase in peacekeepers in the land-locked oil-producing nation, said French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud, who is president of the council for December.
The council met to discuss Ban's request on Monday and Araud said the reaction by all members had been positive. The United States circulated a draft resolution on the increase.
"We're eager to work with the (U.N.) secretariat and troop contributing countries and other member states to ensure that the mission has the assets and resources that it needs to fulfill its mandate," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told reporters after the council met.
Ban said the additional troops would be drawn from other nearby U.N. and African Union missions, such as those in Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sudanese regions of Darfur and Abyei, Liberia and Ivory Coast.
He said five infantry battalions, three attack helicopters, three utility helicopters, one C-130 military transport aircraft and three police units should be transferred to South Sudan.
"I would be grateful if the Security Council would approve the transfer of the relevant personnel and assets to UNMISS on an urgent basis in order to help ensure the protection of civilians and the protection of United Nations personnel and assets," Ban wrote in his letter to the council.
He said the United Nations was obtaining consent from troop and police contributing countries and coordinating with the "peacekeeping operations concerned to ensure that the timing and duration of this proposed temporary re-deployment does not prejudice the implementation of their respective mandates."
Riek Machar, the former vice president of South Sudan leading a rebellion against the government, told Reuters on Monday he was ready for dialogue to end the conflict but said President Salva Kiir must first release his detained political allies.
Machar said he had spoken on Monday to Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom, leader of a team of African mediators trying to end more than a week of fighting that has killed hundreds of people and driven thousands from their homes.
Ban told reporters earlier on Monday that some 45,000 civilians were seeking protection at U.N. bases in South Sudan.
"UNMISS is protecting civilians at its bases, supporting humanitarian deliveries, monitoring the human rights situation and investigating reports of abuses," he said.
"The world is watching all sides in South Sudan. Attacks on civilians and the U.N. peacekeepers deployed to protect them must cease." (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Theodore d'Afflisio and David Brunnstrom)