‘Very, very heavy fighting’ rattles South Sudan’s capital
Issued on: Modified:
Explosions and heavy weapons gunfire shook South Sudan's capital, Juba, Monday in the fifth day of clashes between government and opposition forces, raising the spectre of a return to civil war.
Intense battles resumed Monday with tanks and helicopter gunships deployed and artillery and mortar fire heard in parts of the city.
Insecurity meant planes were unable to arrive or depart the city's airport.
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 only civilians on the streets scurried for shelter during lulls in fighting.
A "massive explosion" hit shortly after 9am local time, followed by further blasts in the Tomping area of Juba, home to embassies, the airport and a UN base, said an aid worker.
"It rings through the whole city every time they fire," said the aid worker, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity. "I think one of the tanks must be near me, my ears are burning."
Explosions and "very heavy gunfire" sounding "like popcorn" were reported by a resident in the Gudele area, who insisted on anonymity for safety.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan reported on Twitter that clashes restarted near its compound in Jebel, where some 30,000 civilians have taken refuge. The opposition also has a base near Jebel and their leader also has his home there.
Two Chinese peacekeepers killed
Two UN peacekeepers from China were killed at the base Sunday night, according to Chinese state media.
An eyewitness in the UN base who was not authorised to speak to the press told The Associated Press that he saw a government tank fire on a Chinese armored personnel carrier. Video broadcast on Chinese state TV showed smoke rising after the attack and Chinese peacekeepers tending to their wounded.
There were 67 injuries and 8 deaths in the UN base Sunday, according to an internal situation report circulated among humanitarian organizations and seen by AP. Water tanks have not been able to bring water to the tens of thousands sheltering inside the base.
The US State Department said it was ordering all non-essential personnel out of the country, and condemned reported attacks on civilian sites in the latest bout of violence, which left at least 150 soldiers dead on both sides. Local media gave a higher toll of around 270.
Exacerbating ethnic divides
The fighting in the capital began Thursday and continued through the weekend, when South Sudan marked its fifth anniversary of independence from Sudan. The gun battles in the capital are similar to fighting in December 2013 that sparked a two-year civil war in which tens of thousands died and displaced more than 2 million.
President Salva Kiir and former rebel leader Riek Machar, who is now vice president, signed a peace accord last year and formed a transitional coalition government. But fighting continued anyway, and the current clashes in Juba threaten to plunge the parts of South Sudan that had been relatively stable back into violence.
The renewed fighting has once again divided South Sudan along ethnic lines, with Kiir's supporters largely Dinka and Machar's followers mostly Nuer.
Many of the thousands displaced by the renewed fighting in Juba are sheltering at the two UN bases, a World Food Program compound and other areas, said UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokeswoman Matilda Moyo.
The United States told its citizens it would evacuate all non-essential staff from the country. The Canadian embassy has closed entirely, according to a message sent to its citizens. India is planning to evacuate its citizens, according to a tweet by its external affairs minister.
UN blasts collapse of peace deal
The latest round of fighting came hours after the UN Security Council strongly condemned the renewed violence in South Sudan and called on Kiir and Machar to control their forces in a statement unanimously passed after a Sunday meeting.
“The members of the Council condemned in the strongest terms all attacks and provocations against civilians and the United Nations. They emphasised the need for United Nations [civilian protection] sites and United Nations personnel to remain secure,” Japan’s ambassador to the UN Koro Bessho said during a press conference shortly after the end of a three-hour closed-door emergency session on the latest crisis.
Japan currently holds the presidency of the 15-member UN Security Council.
The statement also called on Kiir and Machar 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".
Earlier this year, Security Council veto power Russia said it was opposed to an arms embargo because Moscow did not believe it would be helpful to the implementation of a peace deal agreed to by Kiir and Machar last August.
When asked on Sunday about the possibility of an arms embargo, Russia's deputy UN ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, said the council needed to do "something serious about stabilising the political situation".
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)