NAIROBI, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Kenya's leading bank by assets, KCB, will continue its operations in South Sudan despite weeks of fighting that has underscored the risks companies face expanding into one of Africa's last barely-tapped markets.
KCB has a network of 22 branches in the country which gained independence from Sudan to the north in 2011, and they generated 9 percent of the group's 15.2 billion shillings ($176.44 million) pretax profit for the first nine months of last year.
"Most of the bank branches are operational ... with only three remaining closed in Bor, Bentiu and Malakal," said Charity Muya-Ngaruiya, chair of the board of KCB South Sudan, referring to three towns that have seen the worst violence.
The scope for banks to expand into South Sudan could be huge as there is no banking at all in most rural areas of the country of 11 million people.
The recent conflict has left the world's newest state at risk of sliding into civil war.
It erupted in mid-December, tearing open ethnic fault lines and may have killed as many as 10,000 people in the desperately poor nation according to one independent estimate, while the United Nations has said that well over 1,000 people have died.
Peace talks between the warring factions are making slow progress in neighbouring Ethiopia. Even so Muya-Ngaruiya said KCB was encouraged by the negotiations between the government and rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar.
"We are confident that the process will result in a settlement that will allow us to resume our investment programme, and help us contribute in the development of the country," she said in a statement released on Wednesday.
($1 = 86.1500 Kenyan shillings) (Reporting by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Richard Lough and Pravin Char)