JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Heavy arms fire spread out across South Sudan’s capital Sunday between forces loyal to the president and those of the vice president, officials said Sunday, causing widespread casualties and raising fears that the country is returning to civil war.
The fighting continued until about 8 p.m. when a large thunderstorm seemed to put a damper on the violence, said U.N. mission spokeswoman Shantal Persaud. She confirmed that a U.N. armored personnel carrier was hit by a shell at a camp to protect civilians.
The fighting hit a U.N. camp for displaced people sheltering from the violence, according to witnesses.
“The condition is really very bad. We have a lot of casualties this side, I think around 50 to 60 besides those of yesterday,” said Budbud Chol who oversees security at a clinic in the base. “We have civilian casualties. We have rocket-propelled grenades that have landed in the camp which has wounded eight people.” Among the wounded are five children and two women while the rest were men, he said.
At least one person has died in the camp, he said, but he did not know about casualties outside where the fighting is heavy.
Government forces attacked a rebel base in the Jebel area of the capital Sunday morning, said William Gatjiath Deng, a spokesman for the rebel forces.
“Three helicopter gunships have just come now and bombed our side,” he said.
South Sudan’s army confirmed the Sunday clashes but it is not clear how the fighting started, said army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang, who is in the SPLA general headquarters at Bilpham.
The U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency meeting Sunday to consider the fighting in South Sudan. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the fighting.
“I am shocked and appalled by the heavy fighting that is currently taking place in Juba. I strongly urge President Kiir and First Vice-President Riek Machar to do everything within their power to de-escalate the hostilities immediately and to order their respective forces to disengage and withdraw to their bases,” said Ban in a statement. “This senseless violence is unacceptable and has the potential of reversing the progress made so far in the peace process.”
Ban confirmed that U.N. compounds and sites to protect civilians in Juba have been caught in the cross-fire. “I am deeply frustrated that despite commitments by South Sudan’s leaders, fighting has resumed. They must take decisive action to regain control of the security situation in Juba; prevent the spread of violence to other parts of the country; guarantee the safety and security of civilians, United Nations and other personnel; and genuinely commit themselves to the full implementation of the peace agreement.”
Thousands of Juba residents have fled neighborhoods where the fighting has been raging, said Jeremiah Young, policy advisor for World Vision in South Sudan.
“We have seen quite a few individuals packing up and leaving, trying to find shelter, what look like a lot of civilians taking off down the street, carrying their suitcases, their children,” he said. “The number is roughly 10,000 additional people who are seeking shelter, and if things continue that number will likely rise.”
The fighting on Sunday appeared to be mainly in two areas: Jebel, where there is an opposition base and a U.N. base which houses thousands of internally displaced people, and in Gudele, where the rebels have another opposition base, including Machar’s compound. There have been huge explosions in Gudele and people are fleeing by foot, said a resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear for her safety.
“I’ve gotten calls that I should leave but there was so much gunfire nearby I decided to stay in,” she said.
United Nations security radio reported fighting near the house of army chief of staff Paul Malong.
“The situation in Juba has significantly deteriorated,” said a statement by the United States embassy. “There is serious fighting between government and opposition forces, including near the airport, U.N. mission locations, Jebel and elsewhere throughout Juba. U.S. citizens in Juba should remain vigilant … shelter in a safe location, preferably away from doors and windows, and avoid non-essential movements.”
The U.N. Mission in South Sudan is on a high security alert with no movement of U.N. personnel whatsoever, said Shantal Persaud, spokeswoman for the U.N. mission.
Sunday’s fighting is a resumption of the conflict on Friday in which more than 100 people died. A precarious calm was restored on Saturday— the day South Sudan was to celebrate its fifth independence day — that was shattered by heavy gunfire Sunday.
South Sudan is trying to emerge from a two-year civil war caused by political rivalry between Vice President Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir.
The two leaders issued a joint call for calm after Friday’s fighting which began outside the presidential compound where Kiir and Machar were meeting and soon spread through the city.
A similar skirmish in December 2013 sparked of the civil war that killed tens of thousands of people.
Patinkin reported from Nairobi, Kenya. AP writer Charles J. Gans in New York contributed to this story.
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