JUBA: South Sudan’s president said Wednesday he was ready for dialogue with his former Vice President Riek Machar, whom he has accused of orchestrating fighting that has killed up to 500 people and brought the fledgling nation close to civil war.
Clashes that erupted in Juba late Sunday spread to the flashpoint town of Bor, north of the capital, which slipped out of the government’s control.
“We [are] not in control of Bor town,” SPLA [southern army] spokesman Philip Aguer told Reuters.
Bor was the scene of an ethnic massacre in 1991, and the developments are raising fears of a slide back into conflict between clans.
At least 500 people, most of them soldiers, have been killed in South Sudan since Sunday, a senior government official said.
Some of the victims “were shot in the bushes” around Juba, the capital, Information Minister Micheal Makuei Lueth told the Associated Press, citing a report from the defense minister.
Makuei said up to 700 others had been wounded.
The violence has forced about 20,000 people to seek refuge at U.N. facilities in Juba since Sunday.
President Salva Kiir, a member of the dominant Dinka, has blamed the clashes on Machar, a Nuer, who he sacked in July, and said he was plotting a coup. But Kiir told a news conference he was ready for dialogue.
“He was asked whether he would accept any dialogue, and he said he is ready for dialogue,” presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny told Reuters by telephone. Kiir said there was no discussion going on at the moment, Ateny added.
Machar, speaking to the online Sudan Tribune, denied having any role in the fighting or a coup attempt. He accused Kiir of using clashes that erupted between members of the presidential guard to punish political rivals.
Machar said he was still in South Sudan but did not reveal his location.
“The two main ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, could go into a full-fledged civil war in the country,” Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the U.N. and current president of the Security Council, told the BBC. He called for dialogue.
The sentiments were echoed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who said the violence could spread.
Lebanese residents of South Sudan were facing no danger despite the clashes, caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said.
“The Lebanese residing in South Sudan are fine and the situation is currently calm,” said the minister, currently in Ivory Coast on an official visit.
Mansour also spoke to President Michel Sleiman and reassured him that the Lebanese community was safe, according to a statement from the president’s office.
Some 900 Lebanese are believed to reside in South Sudan.
Juba was quiet after sporadic overnight gunfire but U.N. officials also reported fighting in Torit, to the east. The U.N. says the clashes have driven 20,000 people to its camps for refuge.
Seven former ministers have been arrested over a “foiled coup” and several others, including Machar, are wanted for questioning.
A group of east African foreign ministers will travel to South Sudan Thursday in a bid to end the fighting, the first foreign mission to arrive since the conflict erupted.
In Bor, where Nuer soldiers loyal to Machar massacred hundreds of Dinka in 1991, locals feared the fighting could spill beyond two nearby barracks, where clashes flared.
A journalist in Bor told Reuters troops led by Peter Gadet, a Machar ally, took control of the two bases from Dinka soldiers. But according to another account only one base was seized.
Araud said that while there were 7,000-8,000 U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan, his country’s soldiers would not intervene.
A Western diplomat said the expanded fighting was tipping the nation into an ethnic conflict that was “difficult to roll back,” adding that Kiir had raised the stakes by calling it a coup. “It will impact a lot of countries, and they are not beacons of stability,” he said of the region around South Sudan.
Uganda temporarily shut its border. Kenya said its border was open, and aid agencies said a refugee camp nearby was braced for new arrivals. Britain said it was flying out some embassy staff and gathering names of other Britons who wanted to leave.The U.S. State Department said it had evacuated three groups of its citizens, flying them out in two U.S. military C-130 aircraft and one private charter flight.
The U.S. envoy to South Sudan, Susan Page, met Kiir and expressed U.S. concern over the violence and the arrests of opposition politicians.