JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Less than three years after its creation, the world's newest country is beginning to fracture along ethnic lines in violence that has killed hundreds of people. What could come next, some warn, is ethnic cleansing.
South Sudan's numerous ethnic groups have battled each other for decades, but for years their animosity was united in hatred of the government in Khartoum, Sudan, the country's former capital. When the south gained independence in 2011, the groups' common enemy receded, exposing the fault lines — this week, even among the presidential guard.
On Thursday, armed youths breached a U.N. compound in Jonglei state, causing an unknown number of casualties.
Emergency evacuation flights took away American and British citizens, aid workers and United Nations personnel to escape the violence.
South Sudan's government declared that its security forces "are in absolute control of the situation," but admitted later Thursday that the central government had lost control of Bor, the capital of the country's largest and most populous state, where barrages of gunfire were reported.
"The situation in South Sudan can be best described as tense and fragile. If it is not contained, it could lead to ethnic cleansing," said Choul Laam, a top official with the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement, who spoke in Nairobi, Kenya.
Violence broke out late Sunday when the presidential guard splintered along ethnic lines. Guards from the president's majority Dinka tribe tried to disarm guards from the Nuer ethnic group, said Laam. Violence in the capital, Juba, spiraled from there, and then extended out into the country.
"The awful accounts of killings in Juba may only be the tip of the iceberg," said Daniel Bekele of Human Rights Watch. "Government officials — whatever their politics — need to take urgent steps to prevent further abuses against civilians and quickly deescalate rising ethnic tensions."
President Salva Kiir earlier said an attempted coup had triggered the violence, and the blame was placed on ousted Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer.
Machar disputed Kiir's allegations that he had attempted a coup, but said that he wants Kiir out of power.
"We want him to leave. We want him to leave. That's it," Machar told Radio France Internationale. "He can't unite the people and he kills them like flies."
Machar, an influential politician who is a hero of the brutal war of independence against Sudan, is Kiir's rival for top leadership of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement party. Tensions had been mounting since Kiir fired Machar as his deputy in July. Machar later said he would contest the presidency in 2015.
Regardless of the cause, the South Sudan government said the violence has already killed up to 500 people.
Armed youths breached a U.N. compound in the tiny village of Akobo, in Jonglei state, to reach civilians seeking shelter there, said U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq in New York.
"We fear there may have been some fatalities but can't confirm who and how many at this stage," Haq said. The U.N. will try to extract U.N. personnel from Akobo on Friday while reinforcing the base with extra troops.
Juba was mostly peaceful Thursday, and the government tried to assure the U.N. and foreign embassies "that civil tranquility has been fully restored."
Countries such as the U.S., Britain, Italy and Germany continued to evacuate residents. A plane with a mechanical malfunction blocked the runway during the day, jamming up inbound and outbound flights.
The U.S. evacuation plane — the fourth group of Americans flown out in two days — was eventually able to take off heading for Kenya. "Runway clear. Wheels up," the embassy said on Twitter. Two military flights and a charter took off on Wednesday. Britain's evacuation plane landed in Uganda late Thursday.
The government said it lost control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, to forces loyal to Machar. Gunfire was reported early and late in the day, and the U.N. used four helicopters to transport 75 people — a mix of aid workers and U.N. staff — to Juba, said Challiss McDonough, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'s World Food Program.
"We lost control of Bor to the rebellion," said Philip Aguer, the South Sudanese military spokesman.
Aguer said renegade officers wrested control of the town from loyalist forces. At least 19 civilians had been killed in Bor, said Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general's office, citing figures from the South Sudan Red Cross.
In oil-rich Unity state, fighting broke out in oil fields on Wednesday and Thursday, said Mabek Lang De Mading, the state's deputy governor. He said five people died Wednesday and 11 on Thursday.
Foreign ministers from neighboring countries Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Djibouti traveled to South Sudan to try and diffuse the crisis.
Human Rights Watch said Thursday that South Sudanese soldiers fired indiscriminately in highly populated areas of Juba earlier in the week and targeted people for their ethnicity.
Citing witnesses and victims, the group reported that "soldiers specifically targeted people from the Nuer ethnic group." In some cases, the group added, the Dinka may have been targeted by Nuer soldiers.
An estimated 20,000 people have sought refuge at two U.N. compounds in Juba and another 14,000 in Bor. U.N. officials warned of a humanitarian crisis.
Deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson said in New York on Thursday that the U.N. will do its best to protect those who have sought refuge. "Clearly, civilians are in danger," said Eliasson.
Associated Press reporters Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya; Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda; Cassandra Vinograd in London; Cara Anna and Edith M. Lederer in New York and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report. Straziuso reported from Nairobi.