JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — The president of South Sudan implored his country to turn away from ethnic hatred on Friday and said that "the long arm of the law" would find those who have killed during a week of violence.
President Salva Kiir met with foreign ministers from neighboring states, including Kenya and Ethiopia, who flew into Juba, the capital, to help calm tensions after a week of ethnic strife that is estimated to have killed hundreds.
The United Nations said Friday that 34,000 people continue to seek refuge at U.N. bases in three locations across the country, including 20,000 at two bases in the capital.
The U.S. Embassy had a fifth emergency evacuation flight on Friday to move Americans out of the country. British, German and Dutch planes were also scheduled to fly out. Hundreds of foreigners, including aid workers, have hurriedly left South Sudan this week at the urging of foreign embassies concerned about the possibility of out-of-control violence.
Forty-five U.S. troops were dispatched to Juba earlier this week to protect U.S. citizens and property.
Ethnic violence broke out among South Sudan's presidential guard late Sunday night, and fighting spread across the country over the next several days, leading to fears of a civil war between ethnic groups.
Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, earlier this week said an attempted coup had triggered the violence, and the blame was placed on fired Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer. But officials have since said a fight between Dinka and Nuer members of the presidential guard triggered the violence. Machar's ouster from the country's No. 2 political position earlier this year had stoked ethnic tensions.
One of the most worrying bouts of violence this week was in Unity state, where much of South Sudan's oil is located. South Sudan's oil fields have historically been a target for rebel movements "raising concerns that competition over resources could be a key driver of the unfolding crisis," said Global Witness, a London-based group that investigates and campaigns to prevent natural resource related conflict.
"The potential for oil wealth to exacerbate the current power struggle should not be underestimated," said Emma Vickers of Global Witness on Friday. "If rebel forces were to capture the oil fields, they could effectively hold the government to ransom."
South Sudan gets nearly 99 percent of its government budget from oil revenues. The country reportedly earned $1.3 billion in oil sales in just five months this year, Global Witness said.
A top U.N. official in the country, Toby Lanzer, said Friday that "difficulties" continued in Jonglei state, including the province capital, Bor, where a top military commander loyal to Machar defected from the army this week, taking his troops with him.
After meeting with Kiir, Ethiopia's Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the ministers from a regional bloc known as IGAD were in the country to "understand the situation first hand." He called the meeting with Kiir productive but did not provide details.
Uganda sent in what a military spokesman described as a "small contingent" of troops to help evacuate citizens. Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda denied reports that the troops were there to beef up security on behalf of Kiir. Thousands of Ugandans live or work in Juba and other cities.
"We are there to evacuate Ugandan citizens who are stranded there," he said. "Many of them are injured."
The U.N.'s humanitarian arm said 14,000 people are seeking shelter in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, the scene of heavy violence this week. Several hundred people are also seeking shelter in Bentiu, the capital of Unity state.
The U.N. sent four helicopters to Akobo, in Jonglei state, on Friday and said on Twitter that it "has received assurances from forces in charge" that the helicopters will be permitted to land. On Thursday armed youths breached the U.N. compound in Akobo and two U.N. peacekeepers from India were killed.
Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Rodney Muhumuza contributed from Kampala, Uganda.