At least five South Sudanese soldiers were killed in the country’s capital, a government army officer said on Friday, as a clash between rival factions stoked tensions in a nation trying to recover from more than two years of conflict.
Gunfire erupted late on Thursday in the Gudele district of Juba, apparently in a confrontation between members of the country’s main political-military factions, the SPLA and the SPLA-IO. The capital was calm on Friday.
Gudele is where Riek Machar, a former rebel leader and now first vice president, set up his political base after returning to the capital in April. President Salva Kiir and Machar signed a peace agreement in August 2015 but then wrangled over its details for months amid sporadic fighting.
The agreement, intended to end a conflict that erupted in December 2013, calls for integrating the rebel forces of the SPLA-IO with the government military, the SPLA, but that has not begun. Experts fear a fresh conflict if that and other steps are not implemented swiftly.
Both sides have said they are working on rebuilding the five-year-old nation, the world’s newest country.
“There is no reason for the two forces to be fighting each other,” said Brigadier General Lul Ruai, a spokesman for the SPLA. “The SPLA general headquarters has treated this as an isolated incident (on Thursday) that will be investigated.”
He told Reuters “four to five SPLA soldiers” were killed in the incident and extra security forces had been deployed in Juba to keep the peace.
The SPLA, a military and political force, fought Sudan’s government until South Sudan’s independence in 2011. The SPLA has ruled since then but has been hobbled by in-fighting.
Colonel William Gatijiath Deng, a spokesperson for SPLA-IO, the opposition faction, said one soldier from his faction was killed and two others injured when government security forces stopped SPLA-IO vehicles and demanded to search them.
“They refused and later the security shot at our car,” he said, which led to the clash.
He said his forces were back in barracks and would not take further action “unless the government forces come and attack.”
The International Crisis Group urged African leaders to put pressure on South Sudan’s rivals to re-affirm their commitment to peace and implement the deal signed in August last year.
“In the nine months that the ceasefire has been observed, forces have simply paused hostilities while remaining in close proximity: there has been no joint security oversight or move toward unification or demobilisation,” it said this month.
“This would be an untenable status quo even if there were political progress, which there is not,” it added.