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Heavy arms fire rocks South Sudan capital, many casualties

By Charlton Doki and Jason Patinkin Associated Press

JUBA, South Sudan – South Sudan’s capital was rocked Sunday by heavy arms fire between forces loyal to the president and those of the vice president, causing widespread casualties and raising fears the country is returning to civil war.

The fighting began in the morning and continued until about 8 p.m. local time, when a large thunderstorm seemed to put a damper on the violence, U.N. mission spokeswoman Shantal Persaud said. She confirmed that a U.N. armored personnel carrier was hit by a shell at a camp to protect civilians. U.N. peacekeepers in the vehicle were wounded, said witnesses.

“The condition is really very bad. We have a lot of casualties this side, I think around 50 to 60 besides those of yesterday,” said Budbud Chol, who oversees security at a clinic in the base. “We have civilian casualties. We have rocket-propelled grenades that have landed in the camp which has wounded eight people.” Among the wounded are five children and two women while the rest were men, he said.

At least one person has died in the camp, he said, but he did not know about casualties outside where the fighting was heavy between government troops supporting President Salva Kiir and opposition forces loyal to First Vice President Riek Machar.

The opposition side blamed government forces for starting the fighting Sunday morning with an attack on a rebel base in the Jebel area of the capital. Three helicopter gunships bombed rebel camps, said William Gatjiath Deng, a spokesman for the rebel forces.

South Sudan’s army confirmed the Sunday clashes but it is not clear how the fighting started, said army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang, who is in the SPLA general headquarters at Bilpham.

The U.N. Security Council, in a statement released after a nearly three-hour emergency meeting Sunday, “condemned in the strongest terms” the escalation of fighting in Juba and expressed “particular shock and outrage” at the attacks on U.N. compounds and protection of civilian sites. The council members urged an immediate end to the fighting, stressing that “attacks against civilians and U.N. premises and personnel may constitute war crimes.”

One Chinese officer was killed, and several Chinese and Rwandan peacekeepers were wounded in the attacks, said Japan’s U.N. Ambassador Koro Bessho, who holds the rotating Security Council presidency.

Security Council members also expressed their readiness to consider enhancing the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan in an effort to prevent and respond to the violence. The emergency session was called at the request of the United States, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said.

Earlier, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the fighting.

“I am shocked and appalled by the heavy fighting that is currently taking place in Juba. I strongly urge President Kiir and First Vice-President Riek Machar to do everything within their power to de-escalate the hostilities immediately and to order their respective forces to disengage and withdraw to their bases,” Ban said in a statement. “This senseless violence is unacceptable and has the potential of reversing the progress made so far in the peace process.”

About 10,000 Juba residents fled neighborhoods where there was fighting, said Jeremiah Young, policy adviser for World Vision in South Sudan.

“We have seen quite a few individuals packing up and leaving, trying to find shelter, what look like a lot of civilians taking off down the street, carrying their suitcases, their children,” he said.

Other residents said they could not leave because of the fighting.

“I’ve gotten calls that I should leave but there was so much gunfire nearby I decided to stay in,” said one resident, who insisted on anonymity for her safety.

The fighting on Sunday appeared to be mainly in two areas: Jebel, where there is an opposition base and a U.N. base which houses thousands of internally displaced people, and in Gudele, where the rebels have another opposition base, including Machar’s compound. There were huge explosions in Gudele and people are fleeing by foot, said a resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear for her safety.

In response to the ongoing violence, the U.S. State Department on Sunday ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Juba, according to a statement from spokesperson John Kirby.

Kirby said the United States was working with the African Union and regional leaders to press the South Sudanese leaders to end the fighting.

Sunday’s fighting was a resumption of the conflict on Friday in which more than 100 people died. A precarious calm was restored on Saturday– the day South Sudan marked its fifth independence day – that was shattered Sunday by the fighting.

South Sudan is trying to emerge from a two-year civil war caused by political rivalry between Kiir and Machar.

The two rival leaders issued a joint call for calm after Friday’s fighting, which began outside the presidential compound where Kiir and Machar were meeting and soon spread through the city.

A similar skirmish in December 2013 sparked the civil war that killed tens of thousands of people.

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