JUBA, South Sudan, Jul 9 — The streets of South Sudan’s capital were charged with tension on Saturday, the nation’s fifth independence anniversary, after two days of sporadic fighting between government and former rebels that raised fears of high casualties.
The latest violence on Friday in the world’s youngest country represents yet another blow to a shaky peace deal that has so far failed to end the civil war that broke out in December 2013.
The fresh fighting began when President Salva Kiir and rebel leader turned vice president Riek Machar met at the presidential palace and initially involved each man’s bodyguards.
The ensuing shootout, lasting about half an hour, quickly escalated from rifle fire to heavier weapons, raising fears of high casualties as it spread with machine-gun bursts and artillery explosions heard in several parts of town. The shooting subsided as night fell.
A statement issued by South Sudan’s embassy in Washington said the exchange of fire between Kiir and Machar’s bodyguards followed an earlier deadly altercation that killed five soldiers at a checkpoint on Thursday night. That incident left, “tensions running high and led to a misunderstanding”.
A security source speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that “dozens” of soldiers had been killed. Local media reports citing a far higher death toll could not be verified.
Kiir and Machar described Friday’s violence as “unfortunate”.
On Saturday morning tension remained high in the city, with a heavy security presence and few civilians on the streets of Juba.
– ‘Should not lose hope’ –
Unlike in years past there will be no official independence celebrations on Saturday after the government cancelled the festivities saying it could not afford them.
Teacher Peter Mawa, 40, said he has “mixed feelings” of pride over independence and sadness at the ongoing violence.
“I think we have a reason also to celebrate, even if it is only in our houses,” he said, planning to stay indoors in case of any further outbreaks of fighting. “South Sudanese should not lose hope because South Sudan will be okay one day,” he added.
Shop attendant John Manut, 35, said it was important to try to celebrate, despite everything. “This is the day that made us South Sudanese. It reminds us of our struggle to gain our independence.”
South Sudan has seen more war than peace since independence in July 2011.
An August 2015 peace deal was supposed to end the conflict but observers say the peace process has stalled while fighting has continued despite the establishment of a unity government.
This week’s clashes are the first between the army and former rebels in the capital — where the war broke out in 2013 — since both established positions there in April as part of the peace agreement.
Tens of thousands have died in more than two years of civil war, close to three million have been forced from their homes and nearly five million survive on emergency food rations.
The humanitarian crisis takes place alongside an economic one with the currency collapsing and inflation spiralling out of control. The country’s mainstay oil industry is in tatters and regional towns have been razed.