Curfew in South Sudan after fighting breaks out. Was it a coup attempt?

President Kiir called the fighting an 'attempted coup' in the world's newest nation.

Hakim George/REUTERS
South Sudan's President Salva Kir (2nd L) proceeds to address a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Juba December 16, 2013. The South Sudanese president declared a curfew in the capital on Monday after clashes overnight between rival factions of soldiers.

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The South Sudan government has declared a curfew in the capital Juba after a night of gun battles between rival factions that the president has called "an attempted coup."

President Salva Kiir, dressed in military fatigues rather than his usual suit and cowboy hat, told reporters that he had ordered a curfew from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in response to last night's violence, in which soldiers loyal to his government clashed with "a group of soldiers allied to the former vice president Riek Machar," who was sacked in July.

According to various reports, fighting broke out last night at a barracks in Juba between two factions within the military, before spilling out into the streets of the capital. Middle East Online describes the clashes as involving heavy machine guns and mortar fire, and raged from around midnight until Monday morning, when calm was restored.

President Kiir told reporters that the violence "was an attempted coup," and that the "government is in full control of the security situation in Juba. The attackers fled and your forces are pursuing them."

Tensions have been high in South Sudan, the world's newest nation, since July, when Kiir sacked his entire cabinet, including Vice President Machar, in an unexpected purge. Though both Kiir and Machar are high-ranking officials in the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), they come from different, rival tribal groups: Kiir is from the Dinka community, South Sudan's largest ethnic group, while Machar is from the Nuer, the second-largest.

The Sudan Tribune writes that a senior military official said the fighting was a direct result of tribal divides.

“The fighting was sparked off after forces predominantly from one ethnic group were deployed under the directive of Maj. Gen Marial Cinduong Yol, the commander of the presidential guard force”.

The military source, however, claimed the firing started when the ammunition store manager refused to hand over store keys as demanded by the presidential guard commander.

"You know our situation. We are living in a tribal country. This firing had been extended to Bilpam because each group has comrades there. Guns shots remains heard at the moment", the senior official told Sudan Tribune in an exclusive interview on Monday.

Though no official casualties have been released, the Tribune say witnesses put the death toll at around 21 people.

South Sudan Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told The Associated Press that several politicians had been arrested, though he did not say if Machar was among those detained. A military spokesman also told the AP that the South Sudan army was "in full control of the military situation" in Juba.

An Associated Press reporter saw heavily armed soldiers patrolling the streets of Juba Monday amid the gunfire emerging from Juba's main army barracks. The streets were largely empty of civilians, with most Juba residents staying indoors. EgyptAir reported that it had cancelled its flight to Juba on Monday, saying the airport there was closed.

The BBC adds that several hundred people, mostly women and children, had taken refuge at local UN facilities. "We hope the security situation in Juba will quickly normalise to enable the civilians to return very soon to their residential areas. To that end, [the UN mission in South Sudan] calls on all parties to show continued calm and restraint," the mission said in a statement.

The US embassy in Juba warned that it had "reports from multiple reliable sources of ongoing security incidents and sporadic gunfire in multiple locations," and could not confirm that the fighting had ceased, notes AP. The embassy said in a statement that it "recommends that all U.S. citizens exercise extra caution at all times. The U.S. Embassy will continue to closely monitor the security environment in South Sudan, with particular attention to Juba city and its immediate surroundings, and will advise U.S. citizens further if the security situation changes."

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