South Sudan rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar seized the key town of Bor on Thursday, the army said.
“Our soldiers have lost control of Bor to the force of Riek Machar late on Wednesday,” Philip Aguer, an army spokesman, said according to Agence France-Press.
Joseph Contreras, acting spokesperson for the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) earlier confirmed to Al Arabiya News that fighting continued in Bor, the capital of the rural state of Jonglei, and that civilians are seeking shelter at the U.N. compound there.
“The situation in the state capital of Bor is very troubling; there has been heavy fighting there for some time that triggered the influx of people seeking shelter at our facility,” Contreras told Al Arabiya News.
“We are giving shelter to civilians at our compounds in seven of South Sudan... states and we are conducting military patrols of Juba with our uniformed peacekeepers going to neighborhoods that witnessed some of the worst violence that erupted last Sunday,” he said.
“We are also sending out colleagues from the Human Rights Division and Civilian Protection Unit to visit various locations in Juba to make an assessment of humanitarian needs,” Contreras added.
Contreras said fighting in Bor resumed at around 5.10pm local time; his colleague reported five loud explosions. Further clashes are expected “throughout the night,” Contreras said.
Infographic: Clashes in South Sudan
Reports of defections from South Sudan’s army along tribal lines have raised concern that the clashes may widen ethnic tensions. A ruling party official also said the president’s earlier claim that an attempted coup had triggered a bloody upheaval was false.
Instead, the violence erupted on Sunday when the presidential guard attempted to disarm fellow guard members who belong to the Nuer tribe, said Choul Laam, chief of staff for the secretary general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Those who tried to do the disarming were members of the majority Dinka tribe of President Salva Kiir, Laam told reporters in Nairobi.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch organization has also said on Thursday South Sudanese soldiers and rebels have executed people based on their ethnicity.
On Wednesday, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir accused soldiers loyal to Machar of staging a coup attempt in the oil-rich but deeply impoverished nation, which has struggled with instability since becoming independent in 2011.
Kiir also blamed powerful military commander Peter Gadet - who rebelled in 2011 but then rejoined the army -- of mutiny again, launching attacks in the eastern state of Jonglei in support of Machar.
However, Machar denied the accusations, saying the president was using the claim as an excuse to purge political rivals.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate halt to hostilities, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Meanwhile, fears are growing in the international community of a comeback of a civil war in the world’s youngest country, despite the return of stability in the capital.
The British Government sent a plane to South Sudan to evacuate Britons seeking to flee the fierce fighting, the Foreign Office said.
“A UK aircraft is en route to Juba to evacuate British nationals who wish to leave from Juba airport on Thursday,” a ministry spokeswoman said.
“To date, over 150 British nationals have contacted us, many of whom want help leaving the country,” she added.
The British Embassy in Sudan remains open but the Foreign Office said it was “revising its status on a constant basis.”
Britain has advised its citizens not to travel to Juba and the surrounding area.
The United States has also sent two military transport planes and a charter aircraft to fly 150 Americans as well as U.S. and foreign diplomats out of Sudan, the State Department said.
In a separate development, top ministers from four regional nations flew to South Sudan to try to end the clashes.
Amina Mohammad, Kenya’s Foreign Minister, who said she was “en route to South Sudan to offer first hand assistance,” told AFP she was with teams from Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda.
All four are members of the regional body, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), whose members played key roles in pushing forward the 2005 deal that ended Sudan’s two-decade long civil war with the south.
So far, South Sudan’s oil production has not been affected by fighting in the two-year-old nation, Information Minister Michael Makuei Leuth told Reuters.
“There is no fighting in the oil fields. They are peaceful. The oil is flowing as usual,” Leuth said.
But oil workers have left to the U.N. compound in Bentiu seeking protection, the U.N. mission said.