Foreigners evacuate South Sudan as civil war threat grows

An estimated 500 people have been killed since fighting within the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) army broke out over the weekend in what the government calls an attempted coup.

Civilians sought shelter at the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan compound in Bor, on Dec. 18, 2013. South Sudan's Army said it had lost control of the flashpoint town Wednesday.

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Britain and the United States are helping citizens to leave South Sudan this week, as violence that sparked from an alleged coup attempt in the capital on Sunday spread beyond Juba. Farther north today, armed forces reportedly lost control of the town of Bor to mutinous troops, deepening concern that warnings about civil war in the two-year-old nation could become a reality.

“The scenario many feared but dared not contemplate looks frighteningly possible: South Sudan, the world’s newest state (see map here), is now arguably on the cusp of a civil war,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in a press statement this week.

An estimated 500 people have been killed since fighting within the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) army broke out over the weekend in what the government calls an attempted coup by soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, who was removed from his position in July. Mr. Machar denied the allegations on Wednesday.

Choul Laam, chief of staff for the secretary general of the ruling SPLM, countered the idea that violence started as a coup attempt against President Salva Kiir, saying the fighting broke out when the presidential guard tried to "disarm members of the guard who were from the minority Nuer tribe," reports the Associated Press.

Fighting has died down in Juba. The United Nations, however, reports that some 20,000 civilians have fled to two UN compounds seeking shelter and humanitarian relief.

President Kiir flushed his cabinet in July, including Machar, and observers worried it could lead to more widespread tensions. According to Al Jazeera:

Both men are former rebel fighters and senior figures in the governing Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which led South Sudan to independence after a civil war with Sudan that lasted 22 years. Earlier this month, Machar denounced “dictatorial” behaviour by Kiir, revealing the bitter divisions within the SPLM.

Rival Army units initiated the fighting, but the violence began targeting civilians of different ethnic groups, according to the ICG.

Kiir is a member of the Dinka ethnic group, which is the largest in South Sudan. Meanwhile, the Nuer group, to which Machar belongs, has accused the Dinka of “monopolizing everything from politics to the Army,” reports Al Jazeera.

In Bor, located about 125 miles north of Juba in the volatile state of Jonglei, "There was shooting last night .. .we don't have information on casualties or the displaced in the town, as operations are ongoing," army spokesman Philip Aguer told reporters. He added that soldiers had lost control of Bor to mutinous troops led by Gen. Peter Gadet Yaak.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Bor was the launching point in 1983 for a civil war, in what was then Sudan, that lasted for more than two decades.

“This is a political crisis, and urgently needs to be dealt with through political dialogue. There is a risk of this violence spreading to other states, and we have already seen some signs of this,” said UN Secretary General Ban ki-moon.

Kiir has donned military fatigues instead of his trademark suit and black cowboy hat this week, which observers fear could be sending a message that he is siding with one fighting faction over the other.

"By calling Machar a traitor, [Kiir] makes it very, very difficult for Machar to figure out a way to survive under the current government," Eric Reeves, a Sudan analyst at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., told The Wall Street Journal. Kiir’s rhetoric has “ratcheted up tensions," according to Mr. Reeves.

“The blurred lines between ... institutions, senior political figures and ethnic communities– as well as wide-scale arms proliferation—make the current situation particularly volatile,” the ICG said in a statement this week.

When oil-rich South Sudan gained its independence, former deputy culture minister, Jok Madut Jok, likened it to a “four-legged animal” in an interview with Al Jazeera. But South Sudan’s “legs are broken,” Mr. Jok said, acknowledging potential problems ahead.

"The first leg for any government is a disciplined military. We have problems with the way our military functions today. That's a broken leg. We have civil society, right now it is very weak. The third leg is delivery of services. It is hard to deliver security.…The fourth leg is political unity. We had political unity in the days leading up to the referendum [which led to independence]. Since the referendum, we have been having difficulties uniting our ranks. So right now the animal is standing on four crooked legs. If we do not fix these legs, the future is going to be very, very difficult."

A group of East African politicians is scheduled to travel to South Sudan today to serve as mediators, reports The New York Times.

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