Less than three years after its creation, the world’s newest country is beginning to fracture along ethnic lines in violence that has killed hundreds of people. What could come next, some warn, is ethnic cleansing.
South Sudan’s numerous ethnic groups have battled each other for decades, but for years their animosity was united in hatred of the government in Khartoum, Sudan, the country’s former capital. When the south gained independence in 2011, the groups’ common enemy receded, exposing the fault lines — this week, even among the presidential guard.
On Thursday, armed youths breached a UN compound in Jonglei state, causing an unknown number of casualties.
Emergency evacuation flights took away American and British citizens, aid workers and United Nations personnel to escape the violence.
South Sudan’s government declared that its security forces “are in absolute control of the situation,” but admitted later Thursday that the central government had lost control of Bor, the capital of the country’s largest and most populous state, where barrages of gunfire were reported.
“The situation in South Sudan can be best described as tense and fragile. If it is not contained, it could lead to ethnic cleansing,” said Choul Laam, a top official with the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, who spoke in Nairobi, Kenya.
Violence broke out late Sunday when the presidential guard splintered along ethnic lines. Guards from the president’s majority Dinka tribe tried to disarm guards from the Nuer ethnic group, said Laam. Violence in the capital, Juba, spiraled from there, and then extended out into the country.
“The awful accounts of killings in Juba may only be the tip of the iceberg,” said Daniel Bekele of Human Rights Watch. “Government officials — whatever their politics — need to take urgent steps to prevent further abuses against civilians and quickly deescalate rising ethnic tensions.”
President Salva Kiir earlier said an attempted coup had triggered the violence, and the blame was placed on ousted vice-president Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer.
Machar disputed Kiir’s allegations that he had attempted a coup, but said that he wants Kiir out of power.
“We want him to leave. We want him to leave. That’s it,” Machar told Radio France Internationale. “He can’t unite the people and he kills them like flies.”
Machar, an influential politician who is a hero of the brutal war of independence against Sudan, is Kiir’s rival for top leadership of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement party. Tensions had been mounting since Kiir fired Machar as his deputy in July. Machar later said he would contest the presidency in 2015.
Regardless of the cause, the South Sudan government said the violence has already killed up to 500 people.
Armed youths breached a UN compound in the tiny village of Akobo, in Jonglei state, to reach civilians seeking shelter there, said U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq in New York.
“We fear there may have been some fatalities but can’t confirm who and how many at this stage,” Haq said. The UN will try to extract UN personnel from Akobo on Friday while reinforcing the base with extra troops.
Juba was mostly peaceful Thursday, and the government tried to assure the UN and foreign embassies “that civil tranquility has been fully restored.”
Countries such as the U.S., Britain, Italy and Germany continued to evacuate residents. A plane with a mechanical malfunction blocked the runway during the day, jamming up inbound and outbound flights.