JUBA — Tensions soared in Juba Wednesday as five soldiers were killed and several more injured in clashes at the same military barracks where fighting in December triggered months of conflict around the young country.
Officials said fighting broke out Wednesday morning at the Giada barracks, the headquarters of the South Sudan army's ground forces.
Malak Ayuen Ajok, the army's information and public relations director, said the fighting was triggered by a misunderstanding between soldiers over pay.
"What happened was soldiers came to inquire when they are going to receive their salaries. They were told that... there is a system set up for every unit to receive their salaries, and I think during the discussion there was a misunderstanding between the soldiers themselves and this led to a limited shooting among the soldiers,” Ayuen said.
He said five soldiers were killed and "two to three others were injured." Other reports said that scores of soldiers had been wounded in the fighting.
Other soldiers intervened and stopped the fighting, Ayuen said.
Residents flee as gunfire erupts
The clashes sent many residents in the area ifleeing and caused panic in parts of Juba, Ayuen and government spokesman Michael Makuei Lueth said.
The U.S. embassy in Juba urged residents to "stay inside" as "heavy & continued gunfire" was reported near the university.
An hour later, the embassy reported in a tweet that calm had returned to parts of the South Sudanese capital while others remained tense.
The United Nations' Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, expressed concern about the fresh outbreak of fighting in the capital, which has been calm for weeks.
Hours after the fighting erupted, as black smoke continued to rise from the direction of the army barracks, Ayuen urged residents to "go back to your businesses, go back to your homes and go back to your normal duties."
"There is no problem. The thing was within the barracks and it has been contained there," he said.
Ayuen said an unspecified number of soldiers have been arrested in connection with the fighting, but others were still at large. Soldiers involved in the fighting could face a court martial, he said.
Government: Clashes unrelated to ongoing fighting
Makuei insisted that the shooting was not connected to the ongoing conflict between pro- and anti-government forces that was triggered by clashes on Dec.15 at the same barracks.
He said the fighting on Wednesday was "a normal thing that happens in any military area" and had "nothing to do with the rebellion and it nothing to do with the military coup.”
President Salva Kiir has said that the clashes at the barracks in December were part of an abortive coup attempt led by his former deputy, Riek Machar, who has denied the accusations.
The fighting in December spread rapidly from Juba to the rest of the country, and is still ongoing in Jonglei state and the oil-producing states of Unity and Upper Nile, in spite of a cessation of hostilities agreement that was signed six weeks ago.
Thousands are believed to have been killed in the clashes in South Sudan, and around 900,000 fled their homes, seeking safety in neighboring countries, on United Nations bases in South Sudan, or in the bush.