JUBA: South Sudan President Salva Kiir (C), followed by Vice President James Wani Igga (2nd R), leaves the conference room as artillery fire broke out near the presidential palace. —AFP
JUBA: South Sudan President Salva Kiir (C), followed by Vice President James Wani Igga (2nd R), leaves the conference room as artillery fire broke out near the presidential palace. —AFP

JUBA: More than 150 soldiers died in fighting between South Sudan’s army and former rebels in the capital Juba on Friday evening, a spokesman for the former rebels said. “The number of casualties is over 150 killed,” said Roman Nyarji, a spokesman for rebel leader turned Vice President Riek Machar, adding the combined death toll may rise further. “We are expecting a bigger number of casualties because the two units of the presidential guard were all engaged yesterday,” he said referring to bodyguard units of Machar and his rival President Salva Kiir.

Soldiers brought scores of bodies to a hospital, as panicked residents worried of a return to civil war. The doctor said a total count of the dead was not available because soldiers were not allowing doctors to examine the bodies, but he said the morgue was full at Juba Teaching Hospital. Another doctor there estimated 110 bodies, both soldiers and civilians. It was the first word of deaths from Friday’s violence. The majority of the bodies were of soldiers, the first doctor said. Both insisted on speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears for their safety.

The gunfire began outside the presidential compound as President Salva Kiir was meeting with first vice president and former rebel leader Riek Machar and soon spread through the city. The former rivals issued a joint call for calm. Residents reported quieter streets yesterday, on South Sudan’s fifth anniversary of independence. Many people remained indoors. “Government leaders are attempting to restore calm. However, these actions are not yet successful. Large numbers of troops remain on the streets,” the US Embassy in Juba said on its Facebook page.

International groups evacuate

Some international groups like the International Monetary Fund were evacuating their staff from the country. All foreign and local IMF staff and their families were evacuated as the office relocated temporarily to Nairobi, Kenya, said Philippe Egoume Bossogo, head of the IMF office in South Sudan. Gunfire continued into Friday night outside a UN base in Juba sheltering more than 25,000 people. Budbud Chol, who oversees security at a clinic inside the base, said yesterday they had received about 40 people wounded by gunfire, all but three of them men. “They are still coming up to now. All of them are gunshot,” Chol said.

Chol said many of the wounded were hit in crossfire outside the UN base. One woman was hit by a stray bullet inside the base, Chol said. One death inside the UN base was reported, spokeswoman Shantal Persaud said, and at least 1,000 civilians had crowded into the UN staff housing and office areas seeking shelter. In a statement later yesterday, the mission said it was “outraged” by the heavy fighting near the UN compound and that “several rounds” had hit buildings inside it. Most of the diplomatic corps in Juba took shelter at the European Union compound Friday night, while the UN head of mission was at the US Embassy, Persaud said. Armored escorts meant to extract her from the embassy yesterday were prevented by checkpoints from bringing her back to a UN base, she said.

South Sudan’s defense minister, Kuol Manyang Juuk, called the situation yesterday relatively calm and spoke to the UN mission about running patrols in the city’s streets “so that they see the security situation,” the UN mission tweeted. The latest violence began Thursday night with shooting between opposing army factions who are supposed to be carrying out joint patrols under a fragile peace deal reached last year. That shooting, which killed five soldiers, was similar to the skirmish between soldiers in Juba in December 2013 that led to the civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed. – Agencies