A heavily armed Ugandan military convoy crossed into South Sudan Thursday to evacuate citizens trapped in the capital Juba, amid fears that fierce fighting could flare up again despite a ceasefire.
Following four days of intense battles in Juba that left hundreds dead and forced around 40,000 to flee, a tense ceasefire has been in place since Monday but the UN has warned that violence could erupt again.
The convoy of around 50 Ugandan trucks escorted by machine gun-mounted armoured vehicles crossed the border to open up a secure corridor for refugees on the 200 kilometre Juba-Nimule road.
Uganda's army chief Brigadier Leopold Kyanda said the mission involving 2,000 soldiers would likely last "two to three days" but an intelligence officer said some Ugandan troops may remain in Juba.
"Why not? We have the capacity to support the government of South Sudan and we were there before," said the plain-clothed officer accompanying the convoy.
The Ugandan army joined the conflict in South Sudan soon after it began in December 2013, fighting on President Salva Kiir's side against a rebel force led by arch-rival Riek Machar, now the country's vice president. The troops only pulled out late last year.
Kiir on Thursday urged Machar to meet for talks to salvage peace.
"I don't want any more bloodshed in South Sudan," Kiir said, speaking in public for the first time at the bullet-scarred presidential palace where the fighting erupted on Friday.
One city, two armies
While the situation remained calm in Juba on Thursday, aid agencies warned of a worsening humanitarian crisis with a lack of both water and food.
Amnesty International said South Sudan security forces were "deliberately blocking people from leaving the country," describing this as "totally unacceptable."
But UNICEF said it had been able to take advantage of the lull in fighting to deliver 100,000 litres of water to fleeing citizens.
The recent violence in the capital echoed the fighting that triggered the civil war and marks a fresh blow to last year's deal to end the bitter conflict that began when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup.
Kiir is a member of the Dinka tribe, while Machar is a Nuer, and the dispute has split the country along ethnic lines and caused tens of thousands of deaths.
The August 2015 agreement paved the way for Machar's return to the capital in late April to take up the deputy post in a so-called unity government.
Machar's return with a 1,400-strong bodyguard meant there were two hostile armies in the city.
A shoot-out between Kiir's and Machar's guard units triggered the fighting that began on Friday afternoon.
It appears that Kiir's forces -- which outnumbered Machar's both in terms of troops and heavy weaponry -- dominated the battles.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said Kiir's troops were in "full control" of the capital while Machar's former rebels were "scattered" nearby along the city's western outskirts.
"Further clashes, therefore, cannot be ruled out," Ladsous said.
Outside Juba there were reports of fighting in the towns of Leer in Unity State and Wau in Western Bahr el Ghazal and of army and rebel forces mobilising around Malakal in Upper Nile.
"We remain very worried about the potential for the resumption of violence and spillover into other parts of the country," said Ladsous.
'Trying to survive'
One of Machar's spokesmen said the former rebels' base was "destroyed" and Machar was "a vice-president in hiding" not far from Juba.
"He's trying to survive. His life is in danger," claimed Goi Jooyul Yol in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
However, Kiir insisted that neither Machar nor his allies were in danger.
"If there was anyone hunting for them, they could find them," Kiir said. "I am ready to protect Machar if he comes."
Commercial flights resumed to Juba on Thursday morning, with planes arriving almost empty and leaving full of people desperate to get out of the city.
Specially chartered evacuation flights have been taking foreign nationals out of the country since Wednesday.
Source: Name News Network