US evacuates embassy amid heavy fighting in South Sudan capital

Heavy fighting between forces loyal to the president and those of the vice president in South Sudan's capital, Juba, has prompted the US State Department to order the evacuation of all non-emergency personnel.

South Sudanese policemen and soldiers stand guard along a street following renewed fighting in South Sudan's capital, Juba, on Sunday.

The US embassy has ordered the departure of all non-essential staff from South Sudan as the country enters the fifth day of heavy fighting in its capital city. 

"The situation in Juba has significantly deteriorated," the embassy said in a statement. "There is serious fighting between government and opposition forces, including near the airport, UN mission locations, Jebel and elsewhere throughout Juba. US citizens in Juba should remain vigilant ... shelter in a safe location, preferably away from doors and windows, and avoid non-essential movements."

The violence in Juba first erupted on Thursday between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to Vice President Riek Machar. There is no official death toll yet, but at least five soldiers died on Thursday and 272 people, including 33 civilians, were killed on Friday, the Associated Press reports. 

The fighting stalled on Saturday, as the country celebrated its fifth independence day, but resumed on Sunday, starting in the morning and continuing until around 8 p.m. local time, when a thunderstorm hit, said a UN mission spokeswoman. 

After an emergency meeting on Sunday that lasted nearly three hours, the UN Security Council released a statement that "condemned in the strongest terms" the escalation of fighting and expressed "particular shock and outrage" at the attacks on UN compounds and the protection of civilian sites, stressing that "attacks against civilians and UN premises and personnel may constitute war crimes."

About 10,000 Juba residents have fled their neighborhoods because of the violence, according to Jeremiah Young, policy advisor for World Vision in South Sudan. The fighting on Sunday appeared to be largely concentrated in two areas: Jebel, home to an opposition base and a UN base housing thousands of internally displaced people, and Gudele, where another rebel base is located. 

A similar conflict in December 2013, months after Vice President Machar was sacked by President Kiir in a cabinet purge, set off a civil war resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

The two rival leaders signed a peace deal in August 2015, and Machar returned to Juba in April. Many interpreted his return as a step toward permanent peace. 

Since gaining independence from the old country of Sudan on July 9, 2011, South Sudan has struggled to improve its quality of life for residents amidst internal conflict. As the Christian Science Monitor's Mike Pflanz and Rocco Nuri report

Focused on fighting the opposition, the fledgling government's attention and funds were diverted from properly being able to invest in national development.

Today, development indicators have barely moved. Infrastructure remains in shambles. Education, health, and social services are rudimentary, and largely implemented by foreign charities or NGOs.  

In April, the Monitor's Justin Lynch described the country as entering a "new phase of uncertainty."

"Juba will now be ground zero for the many tensions that have long divided both sides in this deadly civil war, which has killed more than 300,000 people by one estimate," he wrote. "For Kir and Machar, managing their relationship, but also managing extremists in each of their camp, will be key to sustaining this fragile peace agreement."

Now, residents and experts worry that the renewed fighting could lead to another full-blown civil war.

"What we may be seeing is a total breakdown of command and control in Juba," said Kate Almquist Knopf, director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, to CNN. "We need to watch carefully for whether a cycle of reprisal killings by either side begins in the next few days."

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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