JUBA: South Sudan said Tuesday it had arrested 10 senior political figures and was hunting for its ex-vice president, accusing him of leading a “foiled coup” in the oil-producing nation’s capital, where gunfire rang out for a second day.
The prominence of the names – including former Finance Minister Kosti Manibe among the detained – underlined the size of the rift in Africa’s newest state, less than two-and-a-half-years after it seceded from Sudan.
The U.S. urged its citizens to leave the country immediately, and pulled nonessential embassy staff.
Rival groups of soldiers started fighting in Juba Sunday night into Monday morning and gunfire and blasts continued sporadically up to Tuesday evening, leaving at least 26 people dead, a Health Ministry official said.
A military hospital doctor said Tuesday that at least 66 soldiers have been killed over the past two days.
President Salva Kiir appeared on television Monday in military fatigues saying forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, whom he sacked in July, had attacked an army base in a bid to seize power.
South Sudan remains one of the poorest and least-developed countries in Africa for all its oil reserves, and is plagued by ethnic fighting, fueled by weapons left after decades of war with Sudan to the north.
The rift at the heart of its political elite will dismay oil companies who had been counting on a period of relative stability after South Sudan’s independence to step up exploration. France’s Total and a group of largely Asian groups, among them China’s CNPC, all have interests there.
Kiir and Machar are from different ethnic groups which have clashed in the past. Machar leads a dissident faction inside the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and was planning to run for the presidency.
Fighting erupted outside his compound in Juba Tuesday, but his whereabouts were unknown, foreign affairs spokesman Mawien Makol Arik told Reuters. Machar has so far not released a statement.
The government Tuesday accused him of being the “coup leader” and listed four other wanted men, including Pagan Amum, the SPLM’s former secretary-general and the country’s main negotiator in a prolonged oil dispute with Sudan. “Those who are still at large will be apprehended,” Information Minister Michael Makuei said in a statement on a government website. He added he believed they had fled to an area north of the capital.
The 10 officials had been arrested “in connection with the foiled coup attempt,” the statement added.
Around 16,000 people had taken refuge in U.N. compounds in Juba by noon Tuesday and the numbers were rising, the United Nations said.
Streets were empty at the start of a dawn-to dusk curfew, ordered by the president. Mobile phone signals were down for a second day. “Food and water is an issue for the population as they don’t have fridges or city power so they buy food almost daily,” said one aid worker in Juba, who asked not to be identified.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Kiir Tuesday and called for his government to provide an “offer of dialogue to its opponents and to resolve their respective differences peacefully.”
The president, who comes from South Sudan’s dominant Dinka ethnic group, sacked Machar, a Nuer, after mounting public frustration at the government’s failure to deliver improvements in public services and basic demands.