Fighting flared again in the streets of South Sudan’s capital on Monday, with gunfire ringing out as soldiers loyal to the president and the vice president battled. The city returned to calm by the afternoon, but it was unclear if was a temporary lull or an end to days of violence.
The renewed gunbattles between troops backing rivals President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar imperil an 11-month peace deal and threaten to plunge the world’s youngest country back into civil war. More than 200 people have been killed in street battles in the capital Juba since fighting first erupted on Thursday, and thousands of others have fled for safety to United Nations compounds.
At the U.N.’s World Food Program office alone in Juba, between 2,000 and 3,000 people were taking shelter, spokeswoman Challiss McDonough said.
“Reports from around town are that there may be 10,000 people who have sought shelter in a variety of locations” including other U.N. compounds, hotels and churches, Ms. McDonough said.
Verisk Maplecroft analyst Emma Gordon said the violence wasn’t surprising given the tension between the two forces since Mr. Machar’s troops arrived in the city with him in April.
“It was just a tinderbox waiting for a spark,” Ms. Gordon said, noting that little had been done to integrate the two forces. “This outbreak of fighting is hugely significant, and it is certainly a change, but it’s also just a very dramatic example of the failings of the peace deal that were already there.”
It was unclear if Mr. Kiir or Mr. Machar had come to any sort of agreement to lay down weapons. A spokesman for Mr. Machar, James Dak, said the last time he was aware that Messrs. Machar and Kiir had talked was on Thursday. South Sudan’s information minister, Michael Makuei Lueth, said the two men had spoken on the phone on Monday, and said he expected an announcement of a truce.
Mr. Kiir on Monday evening ordered the army to cease hostilities and protect civilians, Mr. Lueth said.
Asked about the status of the peace accord, Mr. Dak said: “I cannot say it is completely broken, but it is at the verge of collapse.”
Both sides accuse the other of starting the latest round of fighting. The killing of an opposition-force officer in early July appears to have been the first spark—though those loyal to the president say the officer, a lieutenant colonel in Machar’s forces, shot first. Mr. Machar’s people say he was executed by troops loyal to the president.
But it took a dispute between the two forces at a checkpoint on Thursday to set off major gunbattles. Fighting subsided briefly on Saturday—the fifth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence from Sudan—but resumed again on Sunday.
Mr. Dak said Mr. Machar’s forces are shooting only in self-defense, as fighters loyal to the president push into Juba neighborhood of Jebel, where Mr. Machar lives and his forces are based.
“Our leader Riek Machar is in charge of his forces, and that is why they have not penetrated the town. But if this continues, there may come a time where things may go out of control and our forces may decide to enter the town, to target the source of the attacks,” Mr. Dak said.
Mr. Lueth said the government forces are repulsing attacks by the opposition forces on their checkpoints. He said Mr. Kiir is trying to establish a cease-fire but his forces are continually attacked.
As part of the power-sharing arrangements called for in last August’s peace deal that formally ended 20 months of fighting, Mr. Machar was restored to his previous post as vice president, after he agreed to end his rebellion against Mr. Kiir’s government. Mr. Machar arrived in Juba in April.
Sunday’s fighting claimed the lives of two Chinese peacekeepers, which brought to three the number of troops China has lost in the past two months as it ramps up its participation in the U.N. peacekeeping force in South Sudan.
The two peacekeepers were aboard an armored vehicle bound for a refugee camp when it was hit by an artillery shell, according to state media reports. One soldier died immediately, and six others were wounded in the incident, which occurred Sunday evening local time in Juba, China’s Defense Ministry said in a short statement posted to its official feed on the Weibo social-media site. China’s state broadcaster said one of the wounded peacekeepers later died.
The U.N. said on Sunday that Rwandan peacekeepers had also been killed or injured in the attacks. It disclosed no further details.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Sunday that he was “shocked and appalled” by the fighting, noting that U.N. compounds had been caught in the crossfire.
“This senseless violence is unacceptable and has the potential of reversing the progress made so far in the peace process,” he said.