South Sudan’s president yesterday imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the capital after soldiers loyal to his former deputy attempted to seize power by force, leading to clashes between military factions that highlight the growing instability of the world’s youngest nation.
Flanked by government officials, president Salva Kiir said in a televised address to the nation that the military had foiled a coup orchestrated by “a group of soldiers allied with the former vice-president”.
The soldiers had attacked the South Sudanese military headquarters near Juba University late on Sunday, sparking sporadic bursts of gunfire that continued yesterday, he said.
“The attackers went and [the] armed forces are pursuing them,” Mr Kiir said yesterday. “I promise you that justice will prevail.”
He said the government is now “in full control of the military situation” in Juba, and insisted his government could only be removed though elections.
Details of the attempted coup remained sketchy, but South Sudanese foreign minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said troops within the main army base in Juba raided the weapons store but were repulsed. Some politicians had since been arrested, he said, but could not confirm if former vice-president Riek Machar, the alleged coup leader, was among those in detention.
Mr Benjamin said the coup was plotted by “disgruntled” soldiers and politicians led by Mr Machar, who fell out with Mr Kiir before being fired from his post earlier this year.
Eyewitnesses saw heavily armed soldiers and police patrolling the streets of the capital, but gunfire could no longer be heard later yesterday. The streets were largely empty of civilians. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan reported the sound of mortar and heavy machine-gun fire, and said hundreds of civilians had sought refuge inside UN facilities.
In a statement, the Mission said: “We hope the security situation in Juba will quickly normalise to enable the civilians to return very soon to their residential areas.” There were no “key political or military figures” among those given shelter inside UN facilities, it added.
Tension had been mounting in South Sudan since Mr Kiir fired Mr Machar in July, sparking concerns about possible tribal clashes.
Mr Machar – who has previously expressed a willingness to contest the presidency in 2015 – said after he was fired that if the country is to be united, it cannot tolerate “one man’s rule or it cannot tolerate dictatorship”.
His ousting – part of a wider dismissal of the entire cabinet by Mr Kiir – had followed reports of a power struggle within the ruling party. At the time, the United States and the European Union urged calm amid fears the dismissals could spark political upheaval in the country.
While Mr Kiir is leader of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement party, many of the dismissed ministers, including Mr Machar, were key figures in the rebel movement that fought a decades-long war against Sudan that led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Ms Machar, a deputy chairman of the ruling party, is one of the country’s most influential politicians.