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Hundreds die in 'relentless fighting' in South Sudan. Civil war 2.0?

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:48 IST

Violence that initially began on Friday night has now escalated in Juba, the capital of South Sudan - the world's youngest country.

The health ministry RSS&feedName=worldNews&utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Reuters%2FworldNews+%28Reuters+World+News%29" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">told Reuters said that nearly 300 people have now been killed, including 33 civilians - up from an initial 150 dead on Friday and Saturday.

Friday, the day before the country's fifth-ever independence day, saw scattered gun battles between forces loyal to the country's President, Salva Kiir, and forces loyal to its vice president, Riek Machar.

Heavy gunfire was exchanged across neighbourhoods during the night, including outside the presidential palace, where the two leaders were meeting.

On Sunday, the gunfire erupted again, spreading to different parts of the capital, including near the main army barracks and Juba International Airport.

Tanks and heavy artillery were used to pound targets across Juba, including UN camps holding thousands of refugees. Kiir's forces also reportedly sent helicopter gunships into action.

One resident, who only gave his name as Steven, said he had seen hundreds heading to a UN compound. "I saw dead bodies of civilians and others ... moving with blood on their bodies," he told Reuters by telephone.

According to the South Sudan Tribune, Machar has requested military support from Omer Bashir in Sudan.

In fact, according to Col. William Gatjiath Deng, a spokesman for Machar, the country is "back to war".

But the most recent tweet from South Sudan Tribune claims that the two leaders may just hold talks.

Brittle alliances

Tensions between the forces of Kiir and Machar, always lurking beneath the surface, had last erupted in December 2013, when the situation had escalated into a national bloodbath.

Tens of thousands of people died, and over two million were displaced, during the bloody two-year civil war that was fought along ethnic lines.

Kiir is from the Dinka, South Sudan's biggest ethnic group, while Machar is from the second largest group, the Nuer. The two groups have a long bloody history where both have routinely engaged in all-out war.

The 2013 civil war broke out when Kiir sacked Machar, accusing him of launching a coup - an allegation Machar strongly refuted.

The country's army split into rival factions and Machar fled the capital and became the leader of a formal rebellion. He only returned last year in August under a peace agreement that finally ended the conflict.

One of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, despite being oil rich, the country is so short of money that no official anniversary events were planned.

A worried UN

The United Nations, which still wields considerable influence in the country - because it helped engineer its independence from Sudan in July 2011 - has said that the latest violence highlights "a lack of commitment to the peace process".

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged the country's leaders to discipline military leaders and work together to implement a peace deal. UN peacekeepers are already sheltering 170,000 civilians at six sites, and that number is continuing to grow. A 17 June note to the UN Security Council from Ban Ki-moon on the protection of civilians sites said 40-45% of the 12,000-strong peacekeeping mission was dedicated to guarding those compounds.

The United States Embassy in Juba warned that the capital was not stable, and warned civilians against venturing outside.

"The situation in Juba remains fluid," the embassy said in a statement. "Government leaders are attempting to restore calm. However, these actions are not yet successful. Large numbers of troops remain on the streets."

Kenya has also called on Kiir and Machar to resolve the latest crisis and to ensure heavy weaponry and soldiers were moved out of civilian areas.

Incidentally, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached Kenya on an official visit on Sunday.

Not particularly media friendly

Kiir recently took to Twitter in February 2016 and hasn't yet gotten the "blue tick" yet, but if you go through his account, it's clear to see it belongs to a leader with not much social media experience. He tweeted this on 9 July:

Machar has even fewer tweets to his name - 95 - despite joining Twitter back in April 2011. He has no affirmative blue tick either.

His last tweet is from 29 March, unsurprisingly about more security forces.

Al Jazeera posted an interview of both leaders talking about South Sudan's shaky peace on 9 July. You can watch it here:

First published: 11 July 2016, 12:28 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.