KAMPALA, UGANDA // The South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, said today he is willing to hold talks with his archrival former deputy who he accuses of leading a coup bid against him, as up to hundreds of people were reported killed since Sunday in the world’s newest country.
Clashes between military factions in South Sudan have spread from the capital to the rural state of Jonglei, a South Sudanese military official said yesterday.
The country’s military spokesman, Col Philip Aguer, said that there was fighting overnight among troops in Jonglei, the largest state in South Sudan, and he was trying to confirm reports of desertions from the military.
United Nations diplomats said as many as 500 people had been killed in violence that is believed to be largely along ethnic lines. About 20,000 people have sought refuge at UN centres in Juba, the capital, since fighting started on Sunday, and on Tuesday the United States ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan. The United Kingdom withdrew some embassy staff yesterday.
Meanwhile, EgyptAir said it had resumed flights to Juba after a three-day suspension. The head of EgyptAir holding company, Hossam Kamal, said the flights were resumed after ensuring that conditions were stable at Juba airport
Mr Kiir, said in an address to the nation on Monday that his government had foiled a coup attempt by a group of soldiers loyal to the former vice president, Riek Machar, who is now the subject of a manhunt by Sudan’s military. The foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, said yesterday that Mr Machar was believed to have fled Juba and that the government believed he was in hiding.
“If he wants to become president, he needs to wait for elections,” Mr Benjamin said. “He wants to be president, but in the wrong way.”
At least 10 political leaders have been arrested over their roles in the alleged coup, the government said on Tuesday.
The clashes pit soldiers from the majority Dinka tribe of Mr Kiir against those from Mr Machar’s Nuer ethnic group.
Casie Copeland, the South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, said key Nuer leaders in the army are defecting in Jonglei, in an escalation of the conflict.
“The situation is no longer contained to Juba. This extension of conflict to the state level is deeply concerning and poses serious challenges for ongoing efforts to reduce hostilities,” she said.
Tension had been mounting in South Sudan since Mr Kiir fired Mr Machar as his deputy in July, sparking concerns about possible tribal clashes. Mr Machar, who has said he will contest the presidency in 2015, said after he was fired that if the country was to be united it could not tolerate “one man’s rule or ... a dictatorship”.
His ousting, part of a wider dismissal of the entire cabinet by Mr Kiir, had followed reports of a power struggle within the ruling party. At the time, the US and the European Union urged calm amid fears the dismissals could spark political upheaval in the country.
The alleged coup attempt took place on Sunday when some soldiers raided an army barracks’ weapons store in Juba but were repelled by loyalists, leading to gunfights across the city, according to Mr Benjamin. The government has given few details, raising questions about what caused the violence.
Ms Copeland said that “events that led to Sunday’s fighting remain unclear”.
Angelo Izama, a Ugandan analyst who runs a regional security think tank called Fanaka Kwawote, said that the “coup narrative is weak and was preceded by what appeared to be a direct challenge to Kiir’s political authority”.
South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic violence since it peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.
* Associated Press