JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — The fifth day of fighting between government and opposition forces in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, raises fears that the conflict will spread across the country, drawing in more ethnic militias beyond the Dinka and Nuer.
Explosions and heavy weapons continued in Juba Monday, including attacks by government forces on the U.N. peacekeeping base and camp for civilians who have fled the violence. The prolonged fighting in the capital raises the specter of South Sudan returning to civil war.
Massive explosions were heard in Juba’s Tomping neighborhood, which houses a U.N. compound where at least 3,000 civilians have sought shelter.
“It rings through the whole city every time they fire,” said an aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press. “I think one of the tanks must be near me, my ears are burning.”
In addition to the continued battles in Juba, clashes broke out on Monday in the town of Torit in the southeast. There have also been sporadic hostilities in Wau in the west. South Sudan’s civil war broke out in December 2013 after fighting between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups spread across the country.
The two-year civil war killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 2 million. The war exposed South Sudan’s other ethnic divisions; President Salva Kiir’s supporters are largely Dinka and Vice President Riek Machar’s followers are mostly Nuer. The new fighting has raised concerns that the conflict could spread to South Sudan’s ethnic groups.
“2013 was mostly a fight between the Dinka and Nuer at the local level, but now it’s everyone against everyone and we have no idea where this is going to head,” said Luuk van de Vondervoort, former member of the U.N. panel of experts on South Sudan. “Getting the pieces back together is going to be incredibly, incredibly difficult. You can’t the put the genie back in the bottle now.”
Much of Monday’s fighting in Juba centered in the Jebel area where there is an opposition camp and another U.N. base where some 28,000 displaced civilians have been sheltering since 2013. Thousands more fled to the camp in the current fighting. The Jebel neighborhood also has several embassies, the airport and an opposition camp.
Government forces overran the opposition base in Jebel on Monday, leaving the opposition forces with only their camp in the Gudele area as a foothold in Juba, said William Gatjiath Deng, opposition spokesman.
Two government helicopters have been bombing areas near the U.N. base while ground forces have shelled the camp which houses tens of thousands of displaced civilians, according to a source within the U.N. compound, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
The displaced civilians are mostly of the Nuer ethnic group who sought protection from the U.N. after a series of government-led killings of Nuer in Juba in 2013 which sparked the civil war, according to an African Union commission of inquiry.
Government officials have repeatedly accused the civilians inside the U.N. bases of being rebels or rebel supporters.
U.N. peacekeepers have not protected civilians at the Jebel camp or fired at the troops shelling the base, said the source in the base, who accused the soldiers with U.N. blue helmets of abandoning their positions.
“U.N. peacekeepers, they even run away,” he said. “They are not stopping it.” U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan are mandated to use lethal force to protect civilians under imminent threat in South Sudan.
A government tank fired on a Chinese armored personnel carrier Sunday, an eyewitness in the U.N. base who was not authorized to speak to the press told The Associated Press. Two U.N. peacekeepers from China were killed at the base Sunday night, according to Chinese state media. Video broadcast on Chinese state TV showed smoke rising after the attack and Chinese peacekeepers tending to their wounded.
There were 67 injuries and 8 deaths in the U.N. base Sunday, according to an internal situation report circulated among humanitarian organizations and seen by AP. Water tanks have not been able to bring water to the tens of thousands sheltering inside the base.
The fighting in the capital began Thursday and continued through the weekend, when South Sudan marked its fifth anniversary of independence from Sudan.
President Salva Kiir and former rebel leader Riek Machar, who is now vice president, signed a peace accord last year and formed an uneasy transitional coalition government. But fighting continued despite the peace agreement and the current clashes in Juba threaten to plunge the parts of South Sudan that had been relatively stable back into violence.
Many of the thousands displaced by the renewed fighting in Juba are seeking shelter at the two U.N. bases, a World Food Program compound and other areas, said U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokeswoman Matilda Moyo.
The United States told its citizens it would evacuate all non-essential staff from the country. The Canadian embassy has closed entirely, according to a message sent to its citizens. India is planning to evacuate its citizens, according to a tweet by its external affairs minister.
Patinkin reported from Nairobi, Kenya.