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Hundreds dead in South Sudan fighting as coup bid denied

Picture released by the UNMISS shows a medical team assisting civilians at the Cambodian-run hospital in the UNMISS compound in Juba on December 17, 2013
Picture released by the UNMISS shows a medical team assisting civilians at the Cambodian-run hospital in the UNMISS compound in Juba on December 17, 2013

South Sudan's fugitive former vice president denied Wednesday accusations he led a coup bid against his archrival President Salva Kiir after days of fierce fighting that has killed hundreds of people and sent thousands fleeing to UN bases.

The deadly unrest in the capital Juba has alarmed the international community and sparked fears of a return to civil war in the world's youngest nation.

Kiir on Monday accused soldiers loyal to his arch-rival, former vice president Riek Machar, of staging a coup attempt in the oil-rich but deeply impoverished nation, which has struggled with instability since becoming independent in 2011.

Map of South Sudan's capital Juba locating fighting and key buildings on December 17, 2013
Map of South Sudan's capital Juba locating fighting and key buildings

But in comments published Wednesday, Machar denied any attempt to topple the president, and instead accused Kiir of using the violence as a pretext to purge any challengers.

"What took place in Juba was a misunderstanding between presidential guards within their division, it was not a coup attempt," he told the Paris-based Sudan Tribune website in his first public remarks since the fighting erupted.

"Kiir wanted to use the alleged coup attempt in order to get rid of us," said Machar, who was sacked by the president in July.

The government said 10 key figures, many of them former ministers, have been arrested in the crackdown, and that others, including Machar, were on the run.

Riek Machar, then Vice-President of South Sudan, speaks before the United Nations General Assembly after the body voted to admit the newly-formed nation at the UN headquarters in New York
A photo taken on July 14, 2011 shows Riek Machar, then Vice-President of South Sudan, speaking before the UN General Assembly in New York

Amid fears that South Sudan could descend into wider ethnic violence, the United States ordered non-essential embassy staff out of the country.

The fighting has highlighted the bitter fault lines in the country, which is awash with guns after decades of war.

In Juba, gunfire rang out into the early hours of Wednesday, an AFP reporter said, but without the same intensity as the two previous nights.

"It was the quietest night we've had in Juba since the crisis began on Sunday evening," Joe Contreras, a spokesman for the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS)told AFP.

By midday life on the streets of Juba showed signs of returning to normal.

Image grab taken from South Sudan TV uploaded on YouTube on December 16, 2013 shows South Sudan's President Salva Kiir addressing the nation in Juba to denounce an attempted coup
An image grab taken from South Sudan TV and uploaded to YouTube on December 16, 2013 shows South Sudan's President Salva Kiir addressing the nation in Juba to denounce an attempted coup

Juba airport reopened and several regional airlines resumed flights, although others said they were waiting for additional security guarantees.

Dozens of foreign aid workers and expatriates said on Twitter they were waiting at the airport to board the first flight they could out of the country.

Many of Juba's residents have spent the past two days barricaded in their homes, too afraid to move. Others used lulls in the sporadic and often intense battles to grab what belongings they could and flee to safer areas, including UN bases.

Situation 'extremely tense'

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the Security Council that between 400-500 bodies had been taken to hospitals in Juba, while another 800 people had been wounded.

A photo released by the UNMISS shows a soldier walking by shelters set up by civilians inside the UNMISS compound adjacent to Juba airport on December 17, 2013
A handout photo released by the UNMISS shows a soldier walking by shelters set up by civilians inside the UNMISS compound adjacent to Juba airport on December 17, 2013

Ladsous told the council it appeared the clashes that erupted in the "extremely tense" capital late Sunday were on ethnic lines.

Kiir and his rival Machar hail from different ethnic groups and fought on different sides during Sudan's civil war.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said medical teams in Juba's two main hospitals were having trouble coping.

"Staff in both hospitals have been working around the clock, but they are struggling because of the sheer volume of patients and the severity of the injuries," said Felicity Gapes, an ICRC delegate leading the medical response on the ground.

"There is a heavy toll, it is obvious," Security Council president Gerard Araud told reporters at the UN, adding that precise figures were not yet available.

A photo released by the UNMISS shows civilians seeking shelter at the UNMISS compound adjacent to Juba airport on December 17, 2013
A handout photo released by the UNMISS shows UNMISS more civilians seeking shelter, entering the UNMISS compound adjacent to Juba airport on December 17, 2013

"There are dozens and scores of casualties," France's UN ambassador said.

Araud added that fighting had also been reported in Jonglei, one of the most troubled states in the country and with a bitter history of clashes between rival ethnic groups.

UN peacekeepers said hundreds of civilians had sought refuge at two of their bases in Jonglei, in the state capital Bor and the eastern town of Pibor.

Fighting was reported overnight Tuesday in Bor, with shooting breaking out again in the early hours of Wednesday.

"Hundreds of civilians have been streaming into our camp on the outskirts of the town, they're now over the 1,000 mark, and Bor is very tense," Contreras said.

Ladsous told the Security Council that between 15,000 and 20,000 people had sought UN protection in Juba.

The special representative of the UN secretary-general, Hilde Johnson, said it was "paramount" that the conflict did not assume ethnic dimensions.

The US State Department issued a statement saying all non-emergency US government personnel have been ordered to leave "because of ongoing political and social unrest" and also urged all Americans to get out of the country "immediately".

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