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South Sudan appears to be sliding back into war

Heavy fighting erupted Monday between government and opposition forces in South Sudan's capital, Juba, as last-ditch international pressure by the United Nations failed to stem a slide back into war. South Sudanese military helicopter gunships flew over the capital, tanks were deployed and heavy artillery boomed.

At least 7,000 people fled their homes to take refuge in civilian sites run by the UN peacekeeping force, United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, or UNMISS.  Hundreds took refuge in churches.

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"There is shooting outside where I am," said an activist who did not want to be named and who was lying on the floor of his home as he spoke. "The civilians taking refuge in church compounds do not have protection.

"There are two main fears at the moment," he said. "One, bombs or shells from tanks may fall on our roof. Two, soldiers force their way in our compound and murder us."

Some of the heaviest fighting occurred close to a U.N. base and camp for displaced people. Authorities called for calm and warned civilians to stay at home.

Two UNMISS peacekeepers were killed and eight civilians in UNMISS sites died after being hit by fire from outside. At least 270 people had already been killed over several days of fighting, according to South Sudanese authorities. That number did not include Monday's casualties.

Skirmishes first broke out Friday in Juba and intensified on Sunday and Monday, a continuation of the ethnic war that began there in 2013 and rapidly spread. The country struck a fragile peace deal last August. The deal was designed to bring the two sides together in a unity government, but key elements were never implemented — making the return to war almost inevitable, according to analysts.

Calls by the U.S., the U.N. Security Council and the African Union to stop the conflict were ignored, raising fears that war could spread from the capital across the country and spill over into neighboring countries. Fighting was reported in Torit, east of Juba, and to the west in Mundri.

The American embassy was evacuating all non-essential staff and humanitarian agencies and international organizations were also planning evacuations.

Fred McCray, country director of Care USA said the humanitarian community was in lockdown because it was unsafe to move and the airport was closed. If the airport reopens Tuesday, a mass evacuation of international agencies and humanitarian staff is likely.

"No one wants to leave. But the situation has gotten so dangerous and unpredictable here," McCray said. "I think there's a feeling the fighting is going to go on. The situation has been building for some time."

If humanitarian staff leave, support for the 4.8 million South Sudanese in the midst of a severe hunger crisis would be scaled down dramatically.

"You have this perfect storm of people terrorized by conflict and hit with this issue of how they're going to be able to feed their families from day to day," McCray said. "People are getting more and more desperate. The economy is collapsing."

Smoke rises above Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Explosions and heavy weapons gunfire are shaking the city Monday in the fifth day of clashes between government and opposition forces.
Smoke rises above Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Explosions and heavy weapons gunfire are shaking the city Monday in the fifth day of clashes between government and opposition forces. (Iain McLellan / Associated Press)

The U.S. has called for a regional force to be deployed to restore peace. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a group of regional powers involved in brokering the South Sudan peace deal, held an emergency session in Nairobi on Monday to discuss action.

Festus Mogae, chairman of a regional monitoring commission set up to ensure the peace deal was observed, called for a cease-fire Monday and appealed to the international community to act urgently to restore peace and ensure humanitarian needs were met.

He said a joint military cease-fire commission set up under the peace deal, including South Sudan's government and opposition, "failed to meet and work as a team," creating the conditions for violence.

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Casie Copeland, analyst on South Sudan with the International Crisis Group, an independent analysis group, said the crisis was moving more swiftly than the international community seemed prepared for.

"The pace of conflict in Juba is far outweighing the pace of international engagement," Copeland said in a tweet. "There is phenomenal effort ongoing across front lines to halt the conflict, supported by IGAD. It may not succeed but it's the best chance.

"But we must be honest that despite efforts, hope for a deal to halt fighting in Juba is in short supply right now."

President Salva Kiir issued a cease-fire order on Monday evening. Earlier, the army chief of staff, Paul Malong, ordered soldiers to return to their barracks and warned that soldiers found looting property would be arrested. McCray said the fighting had calmed down by evening.

A statement by UNMISS on Monday condemned "in the strongest terms possible the use of heavy weapons, including rockets from attack helicopters, close to UNMISS protection of civilians sites and is gravely concerned about reports that armed forces have prevented civilians from seeking protection."

In December 2013, political rivalry between the president, Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, and his ambitious deputy, Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer group, spilled into war. The ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement party and army split based on political loyalties, but the fighting swiftly turned to ethnic killing, with civilians hardest hit.

The most contentious part of the August peace deal was the limit on armed forces each side could maintain in Juba. In April, Machar returned to Juba with his guards to become first deputy president in the unity government. But analysts warned that both sides were flouting the deal and preparing for war.

When fighting resumed in recent days, the two leaders called for calm, raising questions as to whether both fully control their soldiers.

The homes of opposition figures from the Nuer ethnic group have been targeted this week, according to Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Jehanne Henry. Much of Monday's fighting occurred near Machar's compound.

The International Crisis Group warned recently that the country was headed back to war unless regional and global powers took firm steps to get the peace process back on track.

"The formerly warring parties are now flouting [the August peace deal] and increasingly preparing for widespread conflict," a statement from the group said on July 1. "Implementation is stalled and fighting is already proliferating around the country. Unless something is done, it is a matter of only a little time before there is a return to war, and the agreement collapses."

Edmund Yakani, a peace activist from the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, said the low levels of trust and confidence between the government and opposition forces in the unity government had been apparent in recent days.

"The likelihood of repeating of ethnic revenge is very high," he said. "With UNMISS, the capacity is small. They're protecting people at their sites, but they're not protecting anyone else."

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