Heavy gunfire outside South Sudan president’s compound

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JUBA, South Sudan (AP) – Heavy gunfire erupted outside the compound of South Sudan’s president Friday evening as Salva Kiir was preparing to address the nation on the latest deadly fighting in the capital, Juba, that has sparked fears of a return to civil war.

Fighting continued Friday night outside a U.N. base sheltering thousands of civilians, and one displaced person told The Associated Press that a few had been hit in the crossfire. People lay on the ground to avoid the bullets, he said, insisting on speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The gunfire began when Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar, the former rebel leader, were meeting about recent violence. They told reporters they did not know what was happening. Panicked residents struggled to determine who was shooting at who, and why.

Both Kiir and Machar urged calm, and Machar said “measures will be taken so that peace is restored even to the heart of the city,” South Sudan’s Radio Tamazuj tweeted . Kiir and Machar were safe, Machar’s chief of staff, Ezekial Lol Gatkuoth, said later.

An AP reporter in Juba said the gunfire was a mix of heavy and light weapons and initially came from the direction of Kololo, the neighborhood of the presidential palace and some diplomatic missions.

Later, the U.N. mission in South Sudan tweeted “heavy gunfire+shelling” at its civilian protection site in Juba as big explosions and gunfire were heard nearby and into the night. Spokeswoman Shantal Persaud told the AP that heavy artillery was coming from “basically all around.” The base shelters about 28,000 displaced people.

South Sudan state television urged residents to “be calm and stay in your house. … The security is well-maintained in this country.”

The gunfire came a day after five South Sudanese government soldiers were killed in a shootout between opposing army factions in the capital. The violence is similar to the skirmish between soldiers in Juba in December 2013 that led to the country’s civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed.

Late Thursday, a convoy of soldiers loyal to Machar opened fire on a checkpoint in Juba manned by troops from Kiir’s faction, said Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for government troops. Koang said five soldiers were killed. “We returned fire but it was limited fire,” he said.

But Machar’s faction accused Kiir’s soldiers of firing on an opposition convoy as it approached the checkpoint in the Gudele area of Juba. Two soldiers from his side were wounded, said William Gatjieth, a spokesman for Machar’s group.

The new fighting comes just before South Sudan marks its fifth independence anniversary on Saturday.

Separately, the U.N. mission reported an “indiscriminate shooting attack on a senior United Nations agency official” on Thursday evening in the Tomping area of Juba.

Salah Khaled, the UNESCO country director, was hit in the hand and leg and was in stable condition, according to a U.N. official who insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from security forces in Juba.

South Sudan’s opposing army factions have been stationed in Juba since April, part of a peace deal signed last year to unite the warring sides. They are meant to hold joint patrols to keep peace in the city, but they have yet to work together in Juba and remain stationed in separate areas.

In a statement Friday, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission that oversees the cease-fire said the recent fighting in many parts of the country could be in “flagrant violation” of the peace deal.

As a result of the rising tensions in Juba, international organizations have limited their movements in recent days. Before Friday’s gunfire, the U.N. mission said it had stepped up patrols around its base but would not increase patrols in the capital.

“The danger all along is with so many soldiers in this so-called demilitarized city of Juba that some kind of spark could set the whole thing off,” said John Young, a South Sudan expert with the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey research group.

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