Civilians in South Sudan increasingly vulnerable as violence reaches UN compound

An attack on the UN compound in Akobo, South Sudan, killed two Indian peacekeepers and prompted the UN to send helicopters to evacuate staff.

A displaced South Sudanese family sits with their belongings after seeking refuge at the compound of the United Nations Mission in Juba this week.

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  • Stability in South Sudan in the wake of an alleged coup has rapidly deteriorated, with the United Nations confirming Friday that two of its peacekeepers were killed after an attack on a UN base.

    The attack on the UN compound happened in the town of Akobo, in Jonglei state, and prompted the group to send four helicopters to rescue staff. The assault underscored the vulnerability of South Sudan's larger population, as more than 20,000 civilians have fled to UN compounds across the country, reports Bloomberg. In the past week, up to 500 people have been killed, and the South Sudanese government had to cede control of the town of Bor, the capital of Jonglei, to rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Marchar.

    President Salva Kiir has accused Mr. Machar, a rival who was fired from his job in July, of staging a coup.  Ethnic violence has been a particular concern: President Kiir is a member of the Dinka ethnic group; Marchar, who is being hunted by security forces, is from the Nuer ethnic group.

    US President Barack Obama said the country “stands at the precipice," and deployed 45 troops to help quell the fighting that erupted this week in the capital, Juba. The US and Britain began evacuating their citizens because of the growing instability. 

    UN head Ban Ki-moon has called for urgent political dialogue, and Reuters reported that Kiir has said he is willing to participate. Regional mediators, who helped in the aftermath of Sudan's civil war, were set to meet with Kiir on Friday, the same time the UN Security Council is holding emergency talks.

    But Machar, in an exclusive interview with Radio France International, called the president a “dictator who is tearing the country apart." 

    "I appeal to the SPLM and the SPLA to remove Salva Kiir from the leadership of the country," Machar said on Thursday. "He is tearing it apart and it is the right of the people, using their vanguard, which is the SPLM party and the SPLA, to remove someone who wants to make himself a dictator and somebody who mismanages issues of the state."

    Some 2 million people died in a civil war in Sudan between 1983 and 2005. The peace that followed gave rise to South Sudan, which became the world's newest nation in 2011. President Obama said the recent fighting “threatens to plunge South Sudan back into the dark days of its past.”

    According to Bloomberg News, South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, citing the BP Statistical Review. While the flow of oil has not yet been affected, fighting has spread to crude-producing areas, Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told the news agency by phone from Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.

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