JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - People emerged from makeshift shelters in this capital city on Tuesday after a cease-fire silenced days of heavy fighting that has threatened to destabilize the world's newest nation.
Forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar had battled each other with anti-aircraft guns, attack helicopters and tanks since Thursday – almost five years to the day since South Sudan declared independence from Sudan with promises of aid and support from world powers.
“We don't even know what is happening. These things, they just happen again and again, and the people of South Sudan are suffering. We need peace," Samson Kenyi, a 34-year-old motorcycle taxi rider said in this capital city.
The violence has raised fears of a collapse of a nearly year-old peace deal that was supposed to end two years of ethnically charged civil war between Kiir and Machar's supporters.
Both leaders denied responsibility and called for calm during the unrest, leading to concerns that they have lost control of their forces or other political actors may be involved.
Ready for talks?
A cease-fire called on Monday night appeared to hold and officials from Machar's sides said he was ready for talks. But there were no details of a meeting or an accord.
The rivals leaders could meet or hold telephone talks on Tuesday to shore up the cease-fire, said Machar's spokesman, James Gatdek Dak.
"Machar is committed to implementation of the peace agreement. If Kiir can reciprocate, I believe they can build confidence," he said. If not, “… I doubt that they will successfully agree to work together."
An international body, the JMEC, has been set up to monitor the cease-fire and peace deal’s implementation. Festus Mogae, a former president of Botswana, chairs the JMEC.
Shops were shut and residents said some of the civilians who ventured out were walking down the city's dusty streets toward U.N. bases, where thousands have already sought safety during the clashes.
"Some of the many displaced from the recent fighting have come out to stretch their legs a little bit. They are in the streets. They are not moving far," said Jeremiah Young, a policy and peace-building adviser for aid group World Vision.
Other Juba residents huddled in churches and schools to escape the fighting.
"The humanitarian needs are going to be very great after this," Young added by telephone. Amid the rainy season, refugees will need shelter, food and clean water. “Water will be a serious concern over the next few days.”
The civil war, which broke out in December 2013 after Kiir sacked Machar, killed thousands of people, drove more than 2.5 million people from their homes and left almost half the nation of 11 million struggling to find enough food.
Oil production, a vital revenue source for the impoverished nation, has plummeted. Fighting often followed ethnic lines, pitting Machar's Nuer group against Kiir's Dinka.
Kiir's officials have said the president is committed to working with Machar to implement a peace deal signed last August but followed by months of wrangling over details and sporadic fighting around the country.
Machar returned to Juba in April, retaking the post of vice president, a move seen as a step toward securing the peace.
But the relationship between the perennial rivals remains brittle. Experts say the failure to implement key elements of the peace deal, such as integrating their rival forces, has increased the chance of further fighting.
Machar's side says the flare-up on Thursday, which led to the street battles, was triggered by the shooting of one of the vice president's officers.
The United States has condemned the violence and said it would hold those who commit atrocities or impede efforts to stop the fighting "fully accountable."
The U.N. Security Council has demanded Kiir and Machar rein in their forces and said attacks on civilians or U.N. bases, which were hit in the exchange of gunfire, could amount to war crimes needing investigation.