JUBA – A U.N. official said Tuesday between 400 and 500 people are believed to have been killed in South Sudan, where two days of fighting between rival factions has sent thousands of terrified civilians fleeing an alleged coup bid.
The United States ordered nonessential embassy staff out of the country as fierce battles raged in the capital, Juba, setting off alarm bells over ethnic violence in the world’s youngest nation.
As sporadic clashes broke out in parts of the city, terrified residents hunkered down at home, too afraid to move. Others used any lull in fighting to flee to safer areas.
“We are afraid of going outside,” said Juba resident Jane Kiden.
“We had wanted to go out and buy food from the market, but how can you go with the shooting? I am staying at home with my children.”
President Salva Kiir on Monday accused soldiers loyal to his archrival, former Vice President Riek Machar, of staging a coup attempt in the oil-rich but deeply impoverished nation. The government said 10 key figures — including former ministers — have been arrested, and that others, including Machar, were on the run.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the Security Council that between 400 and 500 bodies had been taken to hospitals in Juba, while another 800 had been wounded.
Ladsous told the 15-member council that it appeared clashes in the “extremely tense” capital, which erupted late Sunday, were being carried out on ethnic lines.
Minister of Information Michael Makuei Lueth had earlier said that at least 73 soldiers were killed in the fighting, while civilians were also reported to have died.
Security Council President Gerard Araud, France’s U.N. ambassador, would not confirm the toll after the talks.
“There is a heavy toll, it is obvious,” Araud told reporters, while adding that precise figures were not yet available. “There are dozens and scores of casualties, it is really not a minor incident,” he said.
Araud added that fighting had also been reported outside of the capital, in Pibor, Jonglei state, which has a history of clashes between rival ethnic groups.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying all nonemergency U.S. government personnel have been ordered to leave South Sudan “because of ongoing political and social unrest” and also urged all Americans to get out of the country “immediately.”
A top U.N. envoy said at least 10,000 civilians “have received protection in the two UNMISS compounds in Juba,” and that U.N. staff were “taking every possible step to ensure their safety.”
However, Ladous told the Security Council between 15,000 and 20,000 people had sought refuge from the U.N.
The special representative of the U.N. secretary-general, Hilde Johnson, said it was “paramount” that the conflict did not assume ethnic dimensions.
“At a time when unity among South Sudanese is more needed than ever, I call on the leaders of this new country and all political factions and parties, as well as community leaders to refrain from any action that fuels ethnic tensions and exacerbates violence,” she said in a statement.
The African Union also said it was “deeply concerned” about the events and urged all players to show “maximum restraint.”
The heavy fighting and alleged coup has underscored the fragility of the nation that only became independent from Sudan in 2011.
Machar — who was fired in July — leads a dissident group within South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and had been seen as the main challenger to Kiir.
The two men hail from different ethnic groups and had in the past fought on different sides during Sudan’s long civil war.
Salva Kiir is an ethnic Dinka while Riek Machar is a Nuer.
An aid worker with the British charity Oxfam, Emma Jane Drew, said by telephone that the situation in Juba was “very tense.”
“We don’t know who is fighting who,” she said, adding her team was unable to leave their compound.
The independent radio station Tamazuj said clashes were taking place around compounds belonging to Machar or his loyalists.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said over the past two days more than 300 people had been admitted to Juba Teaching Hospital, which reported 26 deaths, and Juba Military Hospital.
“Staff in both hospitals have been working around the clock, but they are struggling because of the sheer volume of patients and the severity of the injuries,” said Felicity Gapes, an ICRC delegate leading the medical response on the ground.
Communication in Juba was sporadic, with most phone lines down.
There were also unconfirmed reports of troops conducting violent house-to-house searches.
“We have heard unconfirmed reports of house-to-house military checks of civilians, including the use of brutality and violence, though this is unconfirmed,” Oxfam’s Drew said.