South Sudan is “back to war”, a spokesman for the vice-president has told the BBC, as rebel factions clash. Forces loyal to rebel-leader-turned vice president Riek Machar say their positions in the capital, Juba, have been attacked by government troops.
Col William Gatjiath, Machar’s military spokesman, told the BBC President Salva Kiir “isn’t serious” about a peace agreement. The government has not responded to Col Gatjiath’s comments. He said “hundreds” of Machar’s troops had died, and that troops loyal to Machar were advancing on Juba from different directions.
UN representatives today reported heavy exchanges of gunfire near their headquarters in the suburb of Jebel. The clashes follow days of fighting in the world’s newest country between supporters of Kiir and Machar.
The violence has raised fears of renewed instability, with a 2015 peace deal failing to quell unrest. Meanwhile, at least 150 soldiers have been killed following heavy fighting as former rebels and government soldiers exchanged fire. “Gunshots, heavily armed exchange UN House area once again; going on now since approx. 0825 (0525 GMT),” the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said on Twitter.
Fighting was reported in several other parts of the city throughout the morning, including the tinderbox Gudele neighbourhood and the central Tongping area near the international airport. Regional airline Kenya Airways suspended flights to Juba citing the “uncertain security situation”.
Today’s fighting began on the city’s western outskirts where both former rebels and government soldiers have bases at the foot of a mountain. Machar has made his headquarters there since returning to the capital in April.
The nearby UN House site is home to roughly 28,000 people previously uprooted by the war and living in flimsy makeshift houses. Aid workers said rounds had landed inside the UN camp, wounding some civilians.
The violence comes a day after the world’s youngest country marked its fifth independence anniversary, and is a fresh blow to a peace deal that has failed to end the civil war that broke out in December 2013.
City residents hunkered down or began fleeing their homes as the UN reported the use of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and “heavy ground assault weaponry”. Helicopter gunships and tanks were also deployed, with a spokesman for Machar saying they were being used to bombard his leader’s base.
“Our forces have been attacked at Jebel base,” said Machar’s spokesman, James Gatdet Dak. “We hope it will not escalate,” he said. A thick stream of fearful civilians, clutching children and meagre possessions, headed for the hoped-for refuge of another UN base close to the city’s airport, only to find fighting erupting there too.
South Sudan has seen more fighting than peace since independence in July 2011, with civil war breaking out December 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup. An August 2015 peace deal was supposed to end the conflict but observers say the peace process has stalled while fighting has continued despite the establishment of a unity government. —BBC & AFP