JUBA, South Sudan — Clashes in South Sudan between factions in the military broke out in the country's biggest state Wednesday, a South Sudanese military official said as an ethnic rivalry threatened to tear apart the world's newest country.
Parts of the capital, Juba, were reduced to rubble in fighting in the past few days, Casie Copeland, the South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, said from Juba. The fighting began in the capital on Sunday but the city was mostly calm on Wednesday amid a heavy security presence.
United Nations diplomats in New York said Tuesday that as many as 500 people have been killed in the violence since Sunday. They didn't describe how they arrived at that number. Copeland told The Associated Press earlier that she had heard of casualty figures that exceeded 500, but that number included both the dead and the wounded.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew was in place and an AP reporter saw a heavy police and army presence on the streets of the capital, with units on patrol. EgyptAir said it resumed its flights to Juba following a three-day suspension after confirming conditions are now stable there.
About 20,000 people have sought refuge at U.N. facilities in Juba since Sunday. On Tuesday the United States ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan immediately. The U.S. diplomatic mission in Juba said on Twitter that an evacuation flight was full on Wednesday and that it would advise if there was another flight on Thursday.
South Sudanese military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer told The Associated Press that there was fighting early Wednesday among troops in Jonglei, the largest state in South Sudan, and he was trying to confirm reports there of desertions from the military.
"We are cautiously monitoring the situation," he said. "There is an unclear situation (and we don't know who is fighting who."
South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic violence since it peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war. For example on one day in October rebels in South Sudan killed at least 41 people and wounded scores more in Jonglei, which lies north of the capital.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir said Monday that his government had foiled a coup attempt by a group of soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. But Machar has denied the allegation. The clashes apparently are pitting soldiers from the majority Dinka tribe of Kiir against those from Machar's Nuer ethnic group.
Copeland said key Nuer leaders in the army were defecting in Jonglei but that "events that led to Sunday's fighting remain unclear."
In a BBC interview Wednesday, Machar denied any link with the fighting and blamed it on a conflict between members of the presidential guard, saying it spread across parts of Juba. He added that government troops used the incident to arrest some of his supporters on Monday, and that he himself escaped.
"Someone wanted to frame me," he said. "I had to flee. They are hunting me down."
Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin insisted Machar had orchestrated the violence in a bid to take power.
"If he wants to become president, he needs to wait for elections," Benjamin said. "He wants to be president, but in the wrong way."
At least 10 political leaders have been arrested over their roles in the alleged coup, the government said late Tuesday.
Tension had been mounting in South Sudan since Kiir fired Machar as his deputy in July, sparking concerns about possible tribal clashes. Machar, who has said he will contest the presidency in 2015, said after he was fired that if the country is to be united it cannot tolerate a "one man's rule or it cannot tolerate dictatorship."
His ouster, part of a wider dismissal of the entire Cabinet by Kiir, had followed reports of a power struggle within the ruling party.
Muhumuza reported from Kampala, Uganda. Associated Press reporter Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.