JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The capital of South Sudan was calmer Wednesday after two days of heavy fighting, but the government said 500 people had died in the clashes between two rival military factions and there were fears that the violence could spiral into civil war.
Fighting erupted in the capital, Juba, late Sunday between factions aligned with the Dinka tribe and those aligned with the Nuer tribe, causing ethnic tensions in the country to spill out into the open. Fighting on Monday and part of Tuesday reduced sections of the city to rubble.
President Salva Kiir has accused rival and former Deputy President Riek Machar of launching a coup, and 10 of Machar's allies have been arrested in recent days. Kiir is from the Dinka tribe; Machar from the Nuer.
The government's information minister, Micheal Makuei Lueth, said 500 people, mainly soldiers, were killed, some shot in the bush, the Associated Press reported. Some 700 people were reported injured.
The president of the U.N. Security Council, Gerard Araud of France, said in an interview with the BBC that the violence was "apparently largely along ethnic lines" and warned of the danger the violence could escalate into civil war.
"It has potential for a civil war because the two main ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuers, could really go into a fully fledged civil war throughout the country, so for the moment what is important is to try to convince the president to enter into some form of dialogue with the opposition," he said.
He said some 20,000 refugees had taken shelter in the U.N. headquarters in Juba, leaving the U.N. overwhelmed in terms of providing food, medicine and water.
Araud said the death toll was large, but couldn't confirm that 500 people had died.
Sudanese radio reported the fighting was sparked by a quarrel between soldiers of rival ethnic groups, which rapidly escalated.
South Sudan, rich in oil, became independent in 2011, but has struggled to deal with ethnic violence in the country's east and rampant government corruption.
Kiir dismissed Machar as vice president and dissolved his Cabinet. Machar later accused Kiir of dictatorial tendencies and said he planned to run for president.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry called on all factions to refrain from action that might escalate tensions.
"Political differences need to be resolved by peaceful and democratic means. The government should respect the rule of law and the people of South Sudan should be able to realize their full potential," Kerry said during a trip to Manila.
The violence followed a meeting of the National Liberation Council of the SPLM last weekend, which was supposed to address the severe tensions in the ruling party, but which ended in failure.