Juba, South Sudan | AFP |
Heavy fighting resumed in South Sudan’s capital Juba on Monday despite international calls for calm after deadly gun battles sent thousands of people fleeing and threatened the young nation’s shaky peace deal.
The United Nations has voiced deep alarm over the surge in violence, which has left several hundred people dead and risks plunging the country into a new civil war just as it marks its fifth year of independence.
Intense battles resumed on Monday with tanks and helicopter gunships deployed and artillery fire heard in parts of the city.
Witnesses reported “very, very heavy fighting,” with residents barricading themselves inside houses and aid workers holed up in bunkers while the US embassy warned of “serious fighting between government and opposition forces”.
The UN Security Council demanded Sunday that President Salva Kiir and his Vice President Riek Machar “do their utmost to control their respective forces, urgently end the fighting and prevent the spread of violence”.
It called for the two rivals to “genuinely commit themselves to the full and immediate implementation of the peace agreement, including the permanent ceasefire and redeployment of military forces from Juba.”
Soldiers loyal to Kiir and former rebels backing Machar fought with tanks, helicopter gunships, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades on Sunday, prompting thousands of civilians to flee in search of safety.
The clashes, the first between the army and ex-rebels in Juba since rebel leader Machar returned to take up the post of vice president in a unity government in April, erupted on Friday when 150 soldiers were killed in brief but heavy exchanges of fire. Local media gave a higher toll of 270.
It is not clear how many were killed in Sunday’s battles, which came a day after South Sudan marked its fifth anniversary of independence.
Juba’s airport has been shut and the United States has ordered all non-essential personnel out of the country.
Shocked and appalled
The violence marks a fresh blow to the peace deal which has failed to end the civil war that broke out in December 2013, when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup.
The Security Council on Sunday pressed South Sudan’s neighbours to help end the renewed fighting, asking for extra peacekeepers as well as demanding that Kiir and Machar rein in their forces.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was “shocked and appalled” at the violence.
Washington said it was ordering all non-essential personnel out of the country and urged both sides to “restrain their forces from further fighting, return them to barracks and prevent additional violence and bloodshed.”
An appeal for calm by the South Sudan Council of Churches, representing the country’s bishops, was played repeatedly on the radio from Sunday.
“We condemn all acts of violence without exception. The time for carrying and using weapons has ended, now is the time to build a peaceful nation,” the message said.
South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makuei blamed the former rebels for the violence and had insisted on Sunday afternoon that the government was “in full control of Juba”.
Regional leaders, including from Kenya and Sudan, also urged an end to the fighting and plan to hold a special summit in Nairobi on Monday.
A “unilateral ceasefire” that Makuei said would be ordered by Kiir failed to materialise late Sunday.
Aid workers said a UN camp housing around 28,000 people previously uprooted by the war had been caught in the crossfire, wounding some civilians.
A steady stream of people clutching children and possessions headed for the hoped-for refuge of another UN base close to the city’s airport on Sunday, only to find fighting erupting there as well. There were also reports of hundreds of South Sudanese crossing into neighbouring Uganda.
South Sudan has seen more fighting than peace since independence in July 2011. An August 2015 peace deal was supposed to end the conflict but fighting has continued despite the establishment of a unity government.
Tens of thousands have died in the violence, with close to three million forced from their homes and nearly five million survive on emergency food rations.
The humanitarian crisis has unfolded alongside an economic one with the currency collapsing and inflation spiralling out of control. The country’s mainstay oil industry is in tatters and regional towns have been razed.