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UN troops killed as South Sudan civil war fears grow

JUBA, South Sudan (UPDATED) – Three Indian peacekeepers were killed in an attack on a UN base in South Sudan Thursday, as fighting between rebels and government forces increased fears the world's youngest state was sliding towards civil war.

India's UN envoy Asoke Mukerji said the 3 were "targeted and killed" during an attack by ethnic Nuer youths on a base at Akobo in Jonglei state.

It is feared there may be other casualties as the fate of more than 30 ethnic Dinka civilians sheltering at the base is not known, said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.

"We have received reports of people killed and injured and are in the process of verifying," said UN deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson.

Forty other UN peacekeepers and 6 UN police advisors at the camp have been moved to safety. The UN Security Council has called emergency consultations for Friday.

The attack on the UN base came after troops loyal to fugitive former vice president Riek Machar seized the town of Bor late Wednesday, army spokesman Philip Aguer said, as fighting continued in eastern Jonglei state.

President Salva Kiir has blamed the bloodshed on a coup bid by his perennial rival Machar, who calls that claim a fabrication to cover up a purge by the regime.

Kiir has said he is ready to "sit down", but Machar, who was sacked by the president in July, rejected the offer.

In an interview with RFI radio Thursday, Machar said he had appealed to the ruling party and army "to remove Salva Kiir from the leadership of the country".

About 450 people have been killed in the capital Juba since battles broke out on Sunday, including around 100 soldiers, the army spokesman said.

The battles have raised concerns of ethnic conflict, with Kiir coming from the majority Dinka people and Machar from the Nuer.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has also expressed deep concern over reports of "numerous extra-judicial killings" and "civilians killed in Juba based on their ethnicity".

Human Rights Watch said witnesses had reported horrific cases of both soldiers and rebels executing people based on their tribe, warning of "revenge attacks".

However, the government insists the clashes are over power and politics, noting that both sides include leaders from different tribes.

"We condemn in strongest possible terms attempts to depict (the) coup as ethnic strife," said a government statement Thursday, noting that of the 11 key figures arrested since fighting began – many former powerful minsters – only two were Nuer.

'On the cusp of a civil war'

The United Nations peacekeeping mission said it was sheltering civilians in six state capitals, including Juba and Bor, as well as in Bentiu, the main town of the crucial petroleum-producing state of Unity.

At least 5 oil workers were killed in Unity when attackers broke into their compound late on Wednesday, a company official said.

Oil production accounts for more than 95 percent of South Sudan's fledgling economy.

Foreigners were being evacuated from the troubled country, with the United States and Britain sending in flights for their citizens, and others fleeing overland south to Uganda.

Long lines of aid workers and expatriates began crowding Juba's airport on Wednesday waiting to board the first flight they could out of the country, with delays after an aircraft that crash landed -- with no casualties -- blocked the runway for several hours.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has warned fighting could spread.

"There is a risk of this violence spreading to other states, and we have already seen some signs of this," Ban said, adding the crisis "urgently needs to be dealt with through political dialogue".

There were fears that the poor and unstable nation, which broke away from Sudan in 2011, could slide into all-out conflict.

"The scenario many feared but dared not contemplate looks frighteningly possible: South Sudan, the world's newest state, is now arguably on the cusp of a civil war," said the International Crisis Group think tank.

'Ghastly acts of revenge'

Top ministers from 4 regional countries flew in Thursday to try to launch peace efforts.

Kenya's Foreign Minister Amina Mohammed told the Agence France-Presse she was working with diplomats from Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda, calling the crisis a "regional issue".

All are members of a regional body, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, whose members played key roles in pushing forward the 2005 deal that ended Sudan's two-decade long civil war with the south.

The capture of Bor raises ugly ghosts from South Sudan's past.

The town, which lies about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Juba, is the capital of the state of Jonglei, one of the most volatile regions in the young nation.

Machar, who fought on both sides during Sudan's 1983-2005 civil war, has been accused of leading a brutal massacre in Bor in 1991. – Rappler.com