The UN warned on Wednesday that violence was spreading in South Sudan, as fierce fighting in the world’s youngest nation prompted the US to evacuate its citizens and other foreigners.
Britain also pulled embassy staff out of the strife-torn nation and Washington said further evacuation flights could follow as fears rise the country, which became independent from Sudan in 2011, could slide back into civil war.
Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more terrified civilians have fled their homes to seek protection at UN bases since the fighting broke out on Sunday.
The US used two C-130 military transport planes and a charter aircraft to fly 150 Americans, as well as US and foreign diplomats, out of the country, the US Department of State said.
“The security situation was getting ugly. There was shooting at the airport,” a US Department of Defense official said on condition of anonymity.
US Department of State deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the US was “deeply troubled” by the outbreak of violence in the country.
“We call on the country’s political leaders to refrain from any action that could escalate an already tense situation or fuel the violence,” Harf added.
Americans were being urged to leave the country and the US Department of State is “working to arrange for additional transportation as necessary to accommodate demand,” Harf said.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Wednesday that at least 19 civilians had been killed in new clashes between rival army factions that have now spread outside the capital, Juba.
Nesirky said the fighting occurred in Bor, capital of eastern Jonglei State, and that tensions were rising in other states.
“Hundreds of civilians have been streaming into our camp on the outskirts of the town, they’re now over the 1,000 mark, and Bor is very tense,” UN Mission in South Sudan spokesman Joe Contreras said.
The UN also reported clashes in the town of Torit, the state capital of Eastern Equatoria.
The violence was sparked by what South Sudanese President Salva Kiir said was a coup attempt on Sunday by his archrival, former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar, who he sacked in July.
Kiir said he was ready to “sit down” with Machar to try to resolve the crisis, but in comments published on Wednesday, Machar denied any attempt to topple the president and instead accused Kiir of using the violence as a pretext to purge any challengers.
“What took place in Juba was a misunderstanding between presidential guards within their division, it was not a coup attempt,” Machar told the Paris-based Sudan Tribune Web site in his first public remarks since the fighting erupted.
Many residents in the capital have spent the days since the outbreak of violence barricaded in their homes, too afraid to move. Others used pauses in the sporadic and often intense battles to flee to safer areas, including UN bases, despite Kiir’s pleas that they return to their homes.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the UN Security Council that between 400 and 500 bodies had been reportedly taken to hospitals in Juba since the fighting broke out, while another 800 people had been wounded.
“There is a heavy toll, it is obvious,” UN Security Council President Gerard Araud said, without confirming how many people had died.
The fighting has highlighted the bitter fault lines in the country, which is awash with guns.