U.S. suspends embassy activity in South Sudan

People displaced following recent fighting in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, used elevated stairways as cover from the sun inside a U.N. compound on Tuesday. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

The State Department urged U.S. citizens in South Sudan to “depart immediately” and suspended embassy operations until further notice because of increasingly violent activity in the capital Juba and elsewhere.

The action followed what South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir called an attempted coup on Sunday. He said unidentified soldiers, who supported his former vice president-turned-political opponent Riek Machar, opened fire at a meeting of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement political party on Sunday. Kiir appeared on state television Monday night to say the government was in control of the capital after an overnight curfew and the arrest of five political leaders thought to be allied with the opposition. Machar is believed to be in hiding.

But gunfights continued in and around Juba, causing about 13,000 people to seek refuge at U.N. facilities, the United Nations said.

At least 26 people — mostly soldiers — have died in the gun battles, according to the Ministry of Health, reported the Associated Press. Other estimates said more than 100 people were killed.

The conflict is not only political but reflects deep-rooted ethnic tensions in the new country, said Jon Temin, director of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Horn of Africa program. Kiir is Dinka and Machar belongs to the Nuer ethnic group, and both have their staunch supporters. So while the reports of violence were troubling, they were not particularly surprising, he said.

The suspension of U.S. Embassy operations, however, was the first such action taken since South Sudan voted to secede from northern Sudan in January 2011, said Temin. “This is the most significant violence in Juba since the creation of South Sudan. It’s sad that this new country, born with so much hope, seems to be turning on itself. The hope is this can be walked back, but that has to happen quickly.”

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