NAIROBI — Fighting continued in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Tuesday, just one day after the president accused supporters of his political rival of attempting a coup. According to the government, at least 26 people have been killed in the violence, while thousands of civilians have been displaced.
Witnesses in Juba heard sporadic gunshots and heavy artillery fire throughout the day, as soldiers patrolled the streets.
On Monday, President Salva Kiir declared a nighttime curfew in the city, after fighting broke out between soldiers at army headquarters.
Kiir said the violence was part of an attempted coup by the supporters of former Vice President Riek Machar, although the details of how the fighting started are murky.
Emma Jane Drew, the South Sudan director for the British charity Oxfam, said in an interview with VOA from Juba that some 14,000 people have been displaced by the violence, while others are taking cover in their homes and compounds.
“I think most people are sheltering from the gunfire just as a result of the stray bullets, which is exactly what we’re also doing," Drew said. "I don’t think there’s anyone in Juba that is not affected at the moment.”
Security forces have also been going door-to-door, searching for those blamed for the fighting. A number of former government ministers have been arrested, while Machar’s whereabouts are unknown.
An outspoken critic of Kiir, Marchar has declared his own intentions to run for president and was fired from his post during a Cabinet reshuffle in July.
International observers have expressed concerns that the rift between Machar, from the Nuer ethnic group, and Kiir, a Dinka, could fuel further violence in the country often wracked by inter-communal fighting.
In a statement Tuesday, the U.N. special representative to South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, called on leaders to “refrain from any action that fuels ethnic tensions.”
The U.S. Embassy in Juba remained closed Tuesday and reported that most cellular telephone service in the city was not working.
The U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, told VOA English to Africa on Monday that the United States was very concerned about the developments. He said the United States could not yet confirm a coup attempt and was trying to learn what sparked the violence.
"The situation remains a bit confused. The embassy in Juba has not been able to get out much due to the fighting around town. Right now they are sheltering in place until they feel it's safe to move around the city," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was deeply concerned by the fighting and what he said was "the risk of targeted violence against certain communities." He said the government must guarantee the security of all civilians regardless of which community they come from.
Speaking to VOA, South Sudan’s Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin downplayed the concerns, saying the alleged coup plotters were ethnically mixed.
“There are some elements who want to shift it to make it look like ethnic, and that’s what is needed to be avoided so that some people don’t try to push it into that direction," he said.
Benjamin added that those arrested will be investigated and taken to court to, in his words, “prove their innocence.”