- POSTED: 19 Dec 2013 15:02
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The United Nations has warned that violence is spreading in South Sudan, as fierce fighting in the world's youngest nation prompted the US to evacuate Americans and other foreigners.
JUBA: The United Nations warned on Wednesday that violence was spreading in South Sudan, as fierce fighting in the world's youngest nation prompted the US to evacuate Americans and other foreigners.
Britain also pulled embassy staff out of the strife-torn nation and Washington said further evacuation flights could follow as fears continue to rise in the country, which became independent from Sudan in 2011, could slide back into civil war.
Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more terrified civilians have fled their homes since the fighting broke out on Sunday to seek protection at UN bases.
The United States used two C-130 military transport planes and a charter aircraft to fly 150 Americans as well as US and foreign diplomats out of the country, the State Department said.
"The security situation was getting ugly. There was shooting at the airport," a US Defence Department official said on condition of anonymity.
Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States was "deeply troubled" by the outbreak of violence in the country.
"We call on the country's political leaders to refrain from any action that could escalate an already tense situation or fuel the violence," she added.
Americans were still urged to leave the country and the State Department is "working to arrange for additional transportation as necessary to accommodate demand," Harf said.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Wednesday that at least 19 civilians had been killed in new clashes between rival army factions that have now spread outside the capital Juba.
Nesirky said the fighting occurred in Bor, capital of eastern Jonglei state, and that tensions were rising in other states.
"Hundreds of civilians have been streaming into our camp on the outskirts of the town, they're now over the 1,000 mark, and Bor is very tense," said UN Mission in South Sudan spokesman Joe Contreras.
The UN also reported clashes in the town of Torit, state capital of Eastern Equatoria.
Fighting sparked by "misunderstanding"
The violence was sparked by what President Salva Kiir says was a coup attempt on Sunday by his arch-rival, former vice president Riek Machar, who he sacked in July.
Kiir said he was ready to "sit down" with Machar to try to solve the crisis.
But in comments published on Wednesday, Machar denied any attempt to topple the president, and instead accused Kiir of using the violence as a pretext to purge any challengers.
"What took place in Juba was a misunderstanding between presidential guards within their division, it was not a coup attempt," he told the Paris-based Sudan Tribune website in his first public remarks since the fighting erupted.
Many residents in the capital have spent the days since the outbreak of violence barricaded in their homes, too afraid to move.
Others used pauses in the sporadic and often intense battles to flee to safer areas, including UN bases, despite Kiir's pleas that they return to their homes.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the UN Security Council that between 400 and 500 bodies had been reportedly taken to hospitals in Juba since the fighting broke out, while another 800 people had been wounded.
"There is a heavy toll, it is obvious," UN Security Council President Gerard Araud said, without confirming how many people had died.
Fighting along ethnic lines
The fighting has highlighted the bitter fault lines in the country, which is awash with guns.
Kiir and Machar hail from different ethnic groups and fought on different sides during Sudan's 1983-2005 civil war.
The South Sudanese government said 10 key figures, many of them former ministers, have been arrested in a crackdown on alleged coup participants.
Kiir said a powerful military commander, Peter Gadet, who rebelled in 2011 but then rejoined the army had mutinied again, launching attacks in Jonglei in support of Machar.
Several regional airlines resumed flights at Juba's airport, with long lines of aid workers and expatriates boarding the first flight they could out of the country. Others left by bus for Uganda.
"Sad/conflicted about leaving place I love in turmoil," wrote American aid worker Erin Polich on Twitter after arriving in Kenya.