UN: Hundreds estimated killed in South Sudan

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

JUBA, South Sudan -- Fighting in South Sudan has killed up to 500 people, United Nations diplomats said Tuesday.

The president of South Sudan, which is also the world's newest country, has blamed the violence on a coup attempt Sunday by soldiers loyal to his former deputy, who belongs to a different ethnic group.

U.N. feared that the violence in the oil-rich East African country is "largely along ethnic lines."

As many as 20,000 people have taken refuge with the U.N. mission in the capital, Juba, the president of the Security Council, French Ambassador Gerard Araud, told reporters.

Araud said the council received only "patchy information" in a special briefing Tuesday evening by the U.N. peacekeeping chief, with the cause of the violence yet unknown.

U.N. diplomats said they were told that local sources in Juba put the death toll at 400 to 500 and estimated the number of injured at around 800, but these figures could not be verified.

Araud said that for the moment, civilians are not being targeted. He described the violence as "infighting between soldiers."

The United States has also ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan immediately.

Sporadic but heavy gunfire has been heard across Juba since Sunday as factions of the armed forces repeatedly clashed.

The Security Council also expressed its concern and called "for the government of South Sudan to engage in dialogue with its opponents and to resolve differences peacefully in order to prevent any spread of the current violence."

The U.S. Embassy said in an advisory that Americans who choose to stay in South Sudan "should review their personal security situation and seriously reconsider their plans." The embassy suspended its normal operations.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters in Philippines, urged all parties in South Sudan to "refrain from any action that can further escalate the tensions."

"Political differences need to be resolved by peaceful and democratic means. The government should respect the rule of law and the people of South Sudan should be able to realize their full potential," Kerry said.

South Sudan President Salva Kiir told the nation on Monday that a group of soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, whom he fired in July amid a power struggle, tried to take power by force but were defeated. He also ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the capital.

The alleged coup attempt took place Sunday when some soldiers raided the main army barracks' weapons store in Juba but were repelled by loyalists, sparking gunfights across the city, Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told the Associated Press.

Benjamin said South Sudanese military has arrested five political leaders with suspected links to the coup attempt, and many more are still being sought.

The government later said in a statement that 10 people have been arrested in connection with the alleged coup plot, and five remain at large, including Machar.

Benjamin also said the U.S. Embassy in Juba and the U.N. Mission in South Sudan has denied they are harboring Machar.

The hunt for Machar, an influential politician who is one of the heroes of a brutal war for independence waged against Sudan, threatens to send the country into further political upheaval.

Machar, the deputy leader of the ruling party, said he would contest the presidency in 2015. He has openly criticized Kiir, saying if South Sudan is to be united it cannot tolerate "one man's rule or it cannot tolerate dictatorship."

The international community has repeatedly urged South Sudan's leaders to exercise restraint amid fears the violence could spark wider ethnic violence.

The U.N. chief told Kiir in a telephone call Tuesday that he expected him "to exercise real leadership at this critical moment, and to instill discipline in the ranks of the (Sudanese military) to stop this fighting among them," said U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky.

South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension since it broke away from Sudan in 2011. In the rural Jonglei state, where the government is trying to put down a rebellion, the military itself faces charges of widespread abuses against the Murle ethnic group. (AP)

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