- Ex-rebels flee after being dislodged from bases around capital
- Juba said to be calm Tuesday after four days of clashes
Fighters loyal to South Sudan’s deputy leader are on the run after President Salva Kiir’s soldiers forced them from bases in the capital following days of violence that left at least 272 people dead and raised the prospect of a return to all-out civil war.
The government is searching for Vice President Riek Machar’s troops who’ve been “dislodged” from their main base at Jebel and sites in the rest of the capital, Juba, in clashes since Friday, Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for the president’s army, said by phone from the city.
Machar’s forces have fled the city, according to an opposition official, who described the violence as a coup against the East African country’s transitional administration by factions opposed to the power-sharing peace deal. The last time there was serious fighting in Juba, a full-scale civil war ensued in the oil-producing nation that drove 2 million people from their homes and killed tens of thousands.
South Sudan, which marked its fifth anniversary of independence from Sudan on Saturday, has been ruled by the transitional government since April, after Kiir and Machar agreed to work together to end a civil war that began in December 2013. The conflict cut oil production in the country, which has sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest crude reserves, by at least a third to as little as 120,000 barrels per day.
Koang said it’s unclear what caused the fighting other than the close proximity of the two armies. “Any slightest provocation will lead them to war,” he said, adding that a committee has been set up to investigate.
Kiir and Machar’s forces clashed in Juba on the night of July 7, leaving at least five people dead. The following day, fighting at the presidential compound killed at least 115 people, while clashes continued on Sunday and Monday, with government helicopters seen attacking opposition bases.
At least 36,000 people, mainly women and children, have been displaced by the fighting and are seeking shelter at United Nations sites and other locations in the city, according to the UN.
Juba was calm Tuesday after both Kiir and Machar ordered their forces to implement a cease-fire the previous night and began crisis talks, South Sudanese Ambassador to Kenya Chol Ajongo told reporters in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where he gave the latest death toll. Juba’s international airport, which shut during the fighting, also reopened, UN-backed Radio Miraya reported, citing South Sudanese officials.
“The cease-fire seems to be largely holding, barring sporadic gunfire,” Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday.
U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Monday condemned “the targeting of civilians” and attacks against the UN mission in South Sudan, “diplomatic installations, NGOs and humanitarian actors.”
Such attacks “could constitute war crimes and other serious international crimes,” she said in a statement. The U.S. “will hold fully accountable those committing atrocities or who impede efforts to halt the fighting.”
Ban on Monday called for an immediate arms embargo on South Sudan and the fortification of the UN mission, which he said “desperately” needs attack helicopters and other equipment to protect civilians.
Kiir belongs to South Sudan’s Dinka community, while Machar is from the Nuer group. The recent civil war was partly fought along ethnic lines.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African bloc that mediated the failed peace agreement, on Monday said it’s demanding a revision of the UN mission’s mandate, to allow for the establishment of an intervention force and increase the number of troops from the region. A major fear is that fighting will spread to other areas in South Sudan, IGAD Chairman Tedros Adhanom told reporters in Nairobi.
Ajongo on Tuesday said South Sudan opposes any deployment of regional forces to help stabilize the country.