South Sudan clashes kill 3 UN soldiers and raise fears of ethnic cleansing

UN soldiers killed as tribal groups turn on one another in rioting that threatens to tear apart the fragile unity in the world's newest nation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 December, 2013, 12:26pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 December, 2013, 2:05am

The United States has deployed 45 troops to South Sudan amid intensifying fighting between rebels and government forces, in the wake of announcements from the UN and a top envoy that at least three peacekeepers died in the conflict.

US President Barack Obama said the forces were sent on Wednesday to protect American lives and assets, and “would remain in South Sudan until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed”.

The growing violence has prompted fears that the world’s youngest nation, which split from Sudan in a 2011 independence referendum, could slide towards civil war after rebels allegedly staged a failed coup.

The UN Security Council in New York has called emergency consultations on Friday after a UN base was attacked by ethnic Nuer youths, killing three Indian peacekeepers. Forty other peacekeepers and six UN police advisers at the camp in Okobo, located in the oil-rich Jonglei state, have been moved to safety.

India’s UN ambassador Asoke Mukerji said the three were “targeted and killed”. It is feared there may be other casualties as the fate of more than 30 ethnic Dinka civilians sheltering at the base is not known, said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.

“We have received reports of people killed and injured and are in the process of verifying,” said UN deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson.

About 450 people have been killed in the capital, Juba, since battles broke out on Sunday, including around 100 soldiers, South Sudan army spokesman Philip Aguer said.

African mediators held talks with President Salva Kiir on Thursday to try to broker peace.

Grappling for power 

The UN base attack came after troops loyal to fugitive former vice-president Riek Machar, from the Nuer ethnic group, seized the town of Bor late on Wednesday, as fighting continued in eastern Jonglei state.

Machar was accused of trying to oust Kiir, a member of the dominant Dinka clan. Machar’s dismissal from government in July led to months of tensions, but he has denied Kiir’s allegation, calling it a fabrication to cover up a purge by the regime.

Rivals have fought fierce gunbattles over the town of Bor, north of Juba, the scene of a 1991 massacre by soldiers loyal to Machar of hundreds of Dinkas.

Kiir has said he is ready to “sit down”, but Machar, who was sacked by the president in July, rejected the offer. In an interview with RFI radio on Thursday, Machar said he had appealed to the ruling party and army “to remove Salva Kiir from the leadership of the country”.

The battles have raised concerns of ethnic conflict, with Kiir coming from the majority Dinka people and Machar from the Nuer.

“There have been signs of different attacks by one of the [ethnic] groups against the other,” Haq, the UN deputy spokesman, said. “We of course have urged the government and indeed all sides to protect all civilians regardless of ethnicity.”

However, the South Sudan government insists the clashes are over power and politics, noting that both sides include leaders from different tribes.

Civilians seek refuge

Haq added that UN peacekeepers were providing security to more than 14,000 civilians at its base in Bor.

The situation in central Juba appeared to have calmed down somewhat, Haq said, allowing limited movement of UN personnel, though there have been continuous reports of civilians seeking refuge at many UN mission bases throughout the country.

“A patrol is scheduled for the area this afternoon,” he said. “In another location in Juba called the Kator complex, approximately 2,000 to 5,000 civilians have sought refuge and have called for UN protection. A patrol is en route.”

But the UN says its 7,000 to 8,000 peacekeepers will not intervene in the conflict.

Thousands of people have sought refuge in UN bases, including 200 oil employees in a main crude-producing region.

Meanwhile, an Ethiopian official said representatives who met with President Kiir on Thursday to broker peace were from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda – the first major peace initiative since clashes first erupted.

“The African Union is until now meeting with the president,” spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said, without giving details of the team. “Their message is that they are trying to broker peace between the two forces.”

Mabek Lang De Mading, deputy governor of Unity State, one of the main oil producing areas, said forces were sent to Unity field, where five people were killed after workers fought with spears and sticks, and to Thar Jath field, where 11 were killed.

Landlocked South Sudan pays fees to Sudan to refine its crude and export it from Port Sudan on the Red Sea, making the oil an important source of income for both states.

Watch: S. Sudan civil war fears grow, civilians flee fighting