Heavy gunfire erupted outside the compound of South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, as he prepared to address the nation on the latest outbreak of fighting in the capital, Juba.
South Sudan TV urged residents to “be calm and stay in your house … The security is well maintained in this country.”
Five South Sudanese government soldiers were killed in a shootout late on Thursday between opposing army factions in the capital, a military official said on Friday, amid fears of a return to civil war in the world’s newest country. The UN mission also reported an attack on a senior official.
The violence echoed the skirmish between soldiers in Juba in December 2013 that led to the country’s civil war, in which tens of thousands of people were killed.
Late on Thursday, a convoy of soldiers loyal to the former rebel leader and first vice president, Riek Machar, opened fire on a checkpoint manned by troops from Kiir’s faction, said Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for government troops. Koang said five soldiers were killed. “We returned fire but it was limited fire.”
Machar loyalists accused Kiir’s soldiers of firing on an opposition convoy as it approached the checkpoint in the Gudele area of Juba. Two soldiers from his side were wounded, said William Gatjieth, a spokesman for Machar’s group.
The fighting comes as South Sudan prepares to mark the fifth anniversary of its independence on Saturday.
Separately, a UN mission reported an “indiscriminate shooting attack on a senior United Nations agency official” on Thursday evening, in the Tomping area of Juba. The UN statement urged South Sudan authorities to investigate.
A UN source identified the official as Salah Khaled, the Unesco country director. The source insisted on speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from security forces in Juba.
South Sudan’s opposing army factions have been stationed in Juba since April as part of a peace deal signed last year to unite the warring sides. They are meant to hold joint patrols in the city, but have yet to work together in Juba and instead remain stationed in separate areas.
South Sudan is at risk of returning to full-scale war because the two sides are not showing willingness to implement security arrangements, the International Crisis Group warned last week.
In a statement on Friday, the joint monitoring and evaluation commission that oversees the ceasefire said the fighting in many parts of the country could be in “flagrant violation” of the peace deal, while security in the capital was “deteriorating”.
As a result of the rising tensions in Juba, international organisations have limited their movements in recent days. The UN mission said it had stepped up patrols around its base, but would not increase patrols in the capital.
“The danger with so many soldiers in this so-called demilitarised city of Juba is that some kind of spark could set the whole thing off,” said John Young, a South Sudan expert with the Small Arms Survey research group.