The United States ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan immediately Tuesday due to fighting in the capital after what its president called a coup attempt by soldiers loyal to his former deputy.
Facing an escalating threat of violence, about 13,000 people sought refuge at U.N. facilities in Juba, the capital, where sporadic but heavy gunfire has been heard since Sunday as factions of the armed forces repeatedly clashed across the city.
The U.S. embassy said in an advisory Tuesday that Americans who choose to stay in South Sudan "should review their personal security situation and seriously reconsider their plans." The embassy suspended its normal operations.
President Salva Kiir told the nation on Monday that a group of soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, who he fired in July amid a power struggle, tried to take power by force but were defeated. Kiir then ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the capital.
The alleged coup attempt took place Sunday when some soldiers raided the main army barracks' weapons store in Juba but were repelled by loyalists, sparking gunfights across the city, Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told The Associated Press.
At least 26 people, mostly soldiers, have died in the violence, according to Makur Maker, a senior Ministry of Health official.
Others put the casualties in the hundreds.
There are "disturbing reports of ethnically-targeted killings," with most of the fighting pitting soldiers from Kiir's majority Dinka tribe against those from Machar's Nuer tribe, said Casie Copeland, the South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group.
"The fighting has been fierce and parts of Juba have been reduced to rubble," she said. "Reported casualty figures are well over 500 and we should expect this figure to increase."
The South Sudanese military has arrested five political leaders with suspected links to the coup attempt and many more are still being sought, Benjamin said.
The U.S. Embassy in Juba and the U.N. Mission in South Sudan have denied they are harboring Machar, he added.
The hunt for Machar, an influential politician who is one of the heroes of a brutal war for independence waged against Sudan, threatens to send the world's youngest country into further political upheaval.
Machar, the deputy leader of the ruling party, said he would contest the presidency in 2015. He has openly criticized Kiir, saying if South Sudan is to be united it cannot tolerate "one man's rule or it cannot tolerate dictatorship."
The international community has repeatedly urged South Sudan's leaders to exercise restraint amid fears the violence could spark wider ethnic violence.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon told Kiir in a telephone call Tuesday that he expected him "to exercise real leadership at this critical moment, and to instill discipline in the ranks of the (Sudanese military) to stop this fighting among them," according to U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky.
The oil-rich East African nation has been plagued by ethnic tension since it broke away from Sudan in 2011. In the rural Jonglei state, where the government is trying to put down a rebellion, the military itself faces charges of widespread abuses against the Murle ethnic group.