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South Sudan's Capital Is Marred By Heavy Fighting


South Sudan is supposed to be celebrating an anniversary. It gained independence five years ago this past weekend from the country's north after years of fighting. But the explosions in the capital these past few days are not from fireworks. We're joined now via Skype by Grant McDonald, who's a freelance journalist based in Juba, the capital city. Welcome to the program.

GRANT MCDONALD: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: What are you seeing and hearing where you are?

MCDONALD: Well, right now, there is sporadic explosions and gunfire that can be heard throughout Juba. And this comes after a night of relative calm. It appears the fighting did start up again, and there was an extremely loud blast around 9 o'clock local time. And about an hour and a half after that, I heard the attack helicopters moving overhead. Now overnight was pretty quiet. The heavy fighting stopped around 8 o'clock last evening after about 12 hours of consistent fighting in an area west of the city center. That is where the United Nations has bases and protection-of-civilian sites. And that quiet was interrupted by loud blasts this morning, that kicking off around 8:30. It's difficult to tell exactly where the heaviest fighting is at the moment, but from the sounds, it appears as though it is in the west part of Juba once again.

INSKEEP: Now, people who follow this will recall that there was a dispute between the president and vice president, that this became violent some time back. Who's fighting now?

MCDONALD: So it is essentially the same people. If you go back to 2013, President Salva Kiir, who was leading the country, accused his vice president, Riek Machar, of an attempted coup. Now it's similar fighting to what we're seeing today and what we saw yesterday that did lead to what is considered a civil war. That had been ongoing for quite some time. A peace agreement was signed last year, but very clearly, it is not holding itself together, as both factions of the army are still fighting. Now the difference them - President Salva Kiir is Dinka, which is a tribe here - one of the largest - while Riek Machar is Nuer, the second largest.

INSKEEP: So there's an ethnic division, but there's also this personal political fight going on. This fighting, is it happening in civilian areas?

MCDONALD: It is happening in civilian areas. The area west - it's an area known as Gudele. It's about a 25-minute drive from where I am. I was hearing yesterday civilians just scrambling to get away. We do not know numbers at this time, but there was sporadic firing and shooting on Friday as well. And the numbers there are over 100. It will still take a couple days to figure out what has actually happened on the ground in terms of number of casualties.

INSKEEP: Are people fleeing Juba?

MCDONALD: People are trying their best to get out of Juba. Local South Sudanese have been moving east, and they're trying to just get away from the fighting, which is heavier in the west. Now, in terms of international staff working here, there are plans to evacuate in a lot of cases, but currently no flights are arriving or departing from the airport, as it is closed. I have heard one organization attempted to get to the airport this morning but were turned away.

INSKEEP: You know, you mentioned United Nations forces. Do they have a mandate to keep the warring sides apart, and do they have the firepower to do that?

MCDONALD: So my understanding, speaking with UN officials and hearing what they have said, their main mandate right now is to protect civilians. And it appears as though there have been attempts - you know, different RPGs and what not have been landing near and in the protection-of-civilian sites. They have reported some casualties involved - or injuries, at least. Those numbers are not 100 percent confirmed.

INSKEEP: Grant McDonald talking to us by Skype from Juba, South Sudan. Thanks very much.

MCDONALD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.