New outbreak of fighting in South Sudan kills hundreds

Violence between government and opposition forces continued on Sunday in the South Sudan capital of Juba, with a spokesman for First Vice President Riek Machar declaring the country is “back to war.”

“Three helicopter gunships have just come now and bombed our side,” Colonel William Gatjiath Deng, Machar’s military spokesman, told the Associated Press.

At least 272 people, including 33 civilians, have died in Juba in the past four days, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed Health Ministry source.

Heavy exchanges between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and opposition forces supporting Machar broke out Friday after gunfire erupted near the presidential compound, where the president was holding talks with his vice presidents. The fighting soon spread across the city, reaching a United Nations base housing 25,000 people.

The fighting is located primarily in the Jebel and Gudele areas of the city, which both house an opposition base.

Friday’s violence came just one day after a firefight between government troops and opposition forces killed at least five soldiers.

In two separate incidents also on Thursday, two U.S. Embassy vehicles were shot at and Sudan’s UNESCO director Salah Khaled sustained a gunshot wound.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signaled alarm at the fighting in a statement Friday, describing the violence that has broken out across the country in the past month as a threat to the country’s peace and stability.

“This outbreak of hostilities in the capital, on the eve of the country’s fifth anniversary of independence, is yet another illustration of the parties’ lack of serious commitment to the peace process,” Ban said in a statement. It “represents a new betrayal of the people of South Sudan, who have suffered from unfathomable atrocities since December 2013.”

The fighting has generated concern that the country will return to civil war less than a year after the signing of a peace treaty in August ended the two year conflict which was fought along ethnic lines. Kiir belongs to the Dinka ethnic group, the country’s largest community, while Machar is part of the Nuer ethnic group.

Since gaining its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, South Sudan has had a tumultuous five years as the newest country in the world.

In July 2013, amid political tension, Kiir dismissed Machar as vice president. Months later, as skirmishes broke out in the capital, Kiir declared that he had foiled a coup attempt planned by Machar. The violence between forces loyal to the president and those allied to the former vice president escalated into civil war, eventually displacing 2.3 million people and killing at least 50,000.

With the war taking a toll on the country’s economy, the nation remains so financially unstable it cancelled its celebrations for independence day even before the fighting.

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