S Sudan on precipice of civil war, Obama warns

The BBC's Anne Soy says there are reports that opposition leaders are calling for President Kiir to stand down before talks can commence

US President Barack Obama has warned that South Sudan is on the "precipice" of a civil war, after clashes in the capital Juba spread around the country.

He said 45 military personnel had been deployed to South Sudan on Wednesday to protect American citizens and property.

At least 500 people are believed to have died since last weekend, when President Salva Kiir accused his ex-deputy Riek Machar of a failed coup.

An estimated 34,000 people have taken refuge at United Nations compounds.

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The next phase may well be a military one, as both sides test out the limits of their strength”

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Two Indian peacekeepers were killed on Thursday when a UN base sheltering refugees at Akobo, Jonglei state, came under attack, the UN mission to the country, Unmiss, said on Friday. An injured Indian soldier was taken to hospital, it said.

Earlier reports said three Indian peacekeepers had been killed in the attack.

UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said more casualties were feared, and he did not know the fate of more than 30 Dinka civilians sheltering at the base.

Security at the compound has since been increased.

Sudan suffered a 22-year civil war that left more than a million people dead before the South became independent in 2011.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq: "We condemn this attack in the strongest terms''

The recent unrest has pitted gangs from the Nuer ethnic group of Mr Machar against Dinkas - the majority group to which Mr Kiir belongs.

"South Sudan stands at the precipice. Recent fighting threatens to plunge South Sudan back into the dark days of its past," President Obama said in a letter to Congress.

"Inflammatory rhetoric and targeted violence must cease. All sides must listen to the wise counsel of their neighbours, commit to dialogue and take immediate steps to urge calm and support reconciliation."

A handout photo from Unmiss shows civilians gathering outside the Unmiss compound in Bor Thousands of civilians have sought safety in the UN compound in Bor
Boys inside the UN compound in Juba (19 December 2013) The UN has expressed concern about a possible civil war between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups

President Kiir has blamed the violence on soldiers who support Mr Machar. Mr Machar, who was sacked by Mr Kiir in July, has denied trying to stage a coup. Mr Machar's whereabouts are unknown.

map

Despite calls for calm, the rival groups have been fighting fierce gun-battles.

African Union spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said on Thursday that the town of Bor, the Jonglei state capital, north of Juba, was in the hands of forces loyal to Mr Machar.

"They control the town but government forces are trying to retake it," he said.

A health official in Juba told the BBC that six doctors in Bor had fled the town after the hospital came under fire from shelling. One of them texted him to say they were still hiding in the bush.

Heavy fighting between Nuer and Dinka soldiers has also been reported near Bentiu, capital of oil-producing Unity State.

A UN spokesman told Reuters news agency more than 500 civilians - and 27 soldiers loyal to President Kiir - had sought refuge at a UN compound there.

Who is Riek Machar?

Former South Sudan Vice-President Riek Machar (file image)
  • Central figure in Sudanese and South Sudanese politics for three decades
  • Ethnic Nuer - second largest group in South Sudan
  • Senior southern rebel SPLM commander but split in 1990s
  • After 2005 peace deal appointed vice-president, retaining the post after independence in 2011 until his dismissal in July 2013

A number of countries were preparing to evacuate their nationals. Britain was sending another flight on Friday, a day after a military transport plane evacuated 182 people, including 53 Britons, to Uganda.

Uganda has sent a small contingent of troops to help pull out its nationals.

A US plane was also due to take Americans out of the country. And China's National Petroleum Company was evacuating oil workers to Juba.

Jonglei state has witnessed some of the worst violence since South Sudan became independent, with hundreds killed in clashes between rival heavily-armed ethnic militias sparked by cattle-rustling.

Following decades of conflict, weapons such as machineguns are widely available in much of South Sudan.

In a statement, the UN mission in the country, Unmiss, said conditions for displaced people in Juba and Bor were "challenging".

It said in some of the UN bases, some people had been able "to construct basic shelters with available materials, but many have no or limited access to shelter".

A delegation of East African foreign ministers has travelled to Juba to try to mediate in the crisis.

South Sudan's government insists the clashes are over power and politics, not between ethnic groups.

The oil-rich country has struggled to achieve a stable government since becoming independent.

Map showing distribution of ethnic groups Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Map showing oil fields and resources Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north.
Satellite image showing green south and brown north The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Map showing distribution of water and sanitation facilities In the Sudanese states of Khartoum, River Nile, and Gezira states, two-thirds of people have access to piped drinking water and pit latrines. In South Sudan, boreholes and unprotected wells are the main drinking sources. More than 80% of South Sudanese have no toilet facilities.
Map showing education levels in South Sudan Throughout the two Sudans, access to primary school education is strongly linked to household earnings. In the poorest parts of the south, less than 1% of children finish primary school. Whereas in the wealthier north, up to 50% of children complete primary level education.
Map showing % distribution of food insecurity by state Conflict and poverty are the main causes of food insecurity in both countries. In Sudan, many of the residents of war-affected Darfur and the border states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan depend on food aid. The UN says about 2.8m people in South Sudan required food aid in 2013.

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