, JUBA, Jul 11 – South Sudan’s president ordered a ceasefire Monday after a new day of heavy fighting in the capital Juba that sent thousands of people fleeing and threatened a return to civil war.
President Salva Kiir’s ceasefire order Monday evening raised hopes of an end to four days of deadly fighting between the army and ex-rebels.
“The president has reiterated his commitment to the continued implementation of the [peace] agreement in letter and spirit, and thus issues an order of cessation of hostilities with immediate effect,” Information Minister Michael Makuei said on state television at 6:00pm local time.
There was no immediate response from rebel leader turned Vice President Riek Machar whose forces have been battling Kiir’s soldiers on and off since Friday evening.
The United Nations had expressed deep alarm over days of violence between the army and ex-rebels, which has left several hundred people dead and threatens the young nation’s shaky peace.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said “more than 7,000 people” had sought shelter at two compounds in Juba while fighting was also reported in the south-eastern town of Torit where thousands fled to a UN base.
Eight people have been killed and 67 injured at the UN’s so-called “Protection of Civilian” sites in Juba since Sunday.
“UNMISS compounds are caught directly between the fighting and continue to sustain impacts from small arms and heavy weapons fire,” UNMISS said in a statement.
Intense battles were fought throughout Monday with tanks and helicopter gunships deployed and artillery and mortar fire heard in parts of the city.
Witnesses reported “very, very heavy fighting” in Juba with residents barricading themselves inside houses and aid workers holed up in bunkers while the US embassy warned of “serious fighting between government and opposition forces”.
The only civilians on the streets scurried for shelter during lulls in fighting.
– Hundreds killed –
The current fighting between soldiers loyal to Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, and former rebels backing Machar, a Nuer, was triggered by a deadly altercation at a checkpoint on Thursday night.
That was followed by hours of violent confrontations on Friday evening that left “over 300 soldiers” dead, according to Makuei.