As the fighting in South Sudan enters its second week, the UN Security Council plans to double the number of peacekeepers in the country in an effort to protect civilians.
The United Nations' top humanitarian official in South Sudan told reporters in the capital, Juba, on Tuesday, that the death toll was much higher than the figure of 500 that officials have given for the past few days. The UN Security Council on Tuesday approved a plan by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to boost the strength of the UN force in the country to 12,500.
The announcement by South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makuei that the Sudan's People Liberation Army (SPLA) has launched an offensive has deepened fears that the conflict is tilting the young nation further into a civil war.
DW's correspondent Hannah McNeish in South Sudan's capital Juba said people in the country were already calling the fighting a civil war. "It has turned from a political struggle into widespread ethnic killings." McNeish said, adding that armed civilians had joined various army factions and were now targeting rival ethnicities.
After urging the United Nations Security Council to send more troops to the country, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also warned warring factions that reports of crimes against humanity would be investigated. Eyewitnesses spoke of a wave of brutal ethnic killings, and Toby Lanzer, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, said that there was absolutely no doubt in his mind that thousands of people had already died.
The country has been racked with unrest since President Salva Kiir accused his rival former deputy Riek Machar of attempting a coup. Last week, gunmen stormed a UN base in Akodo, killing two Indian peacekeepers and at least 20 other civilians who had fled to the UN compound for shelter.
The ethnic equation
The fighting has now taken on ethnic dimensions. This has sparked concerns that it could be difficult for the leaders to stop the conflict should civil war break out. President Salva Kiir is a Dinka, from South Sudan's largest ethnic group, while Machar hails from the Lou Nuer ethnic community. There have been repeated violent clashes between the two tribes, mostly centered on Jonglei State, ever since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan.
Toby Lanzer told DW that the country was becoming increasingly volatile. "It has been difficult for us to reach all corners of the country, and in some cases we have had to relocate staff to get them out of harm's way," he said.
Rebels loyal to Machar were, he said, in control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, as well as Bentiu, capital of the oil-producing Unity State. However, South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makeui insisted that the government continued to control parts of Unity State, including its oil fields. According to Makeui, the former vice president Machar and his wife escaped by boat to Unity State, the former rebel fighter's birthplace.
Salva Kiir is facing his biggest challenge since being sworn in as president in 2011. He was expected to meet with Rebecca Garang, widow of the late John Garang, founder of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), who is widely seen as a supporter of Machar. Kiir and Machar are both members of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the political wing of the SPLA.
Machar has been described by regional negotiators as a wild card. On Monday (23.12.2013), he said he was willing to talk to Kiir, on condition that all his "comrades" were freed. Initially, however, Machar had indicated that he would only hold talks if Kiir agreed to relinquish power. The talks, which are being facilitated by a group of ministers from neighboring African states, have so far failed to materialize.
The US and various European and African countries started evacuating their citizens last week. Four servicemen from the US were wounded when their aircraft came under fire in a rebel-held area.
Britain, which sent three aircraft to pull out its nationals, issued a warning to those who chose to stay, saying they "may have difficulty leaving in the event of a further deterioration in security."
The UN also removed "non-critical" staff from South Sudan, but said it would boost the number of peacekeepers in Jonglei and Unity states. The UN says the conflict has led more than 45,000 civilians to take refuge at its facilities.
According to Lanzer, the situation is changing rapidly. "We've got possibly hundreds of thousands of people who have sought refuge in churches," he said.
Lanzer called on the international community to assist their operations, saying they have "massive requirements for water, hygiene items, health items, shelter, as well as foodstuffs."
The oil factor
The oil sector has been hit severely by the fighting, with oil companies evacuating employees after the death of at least five South Sudanese oil workers last week. But the government insists that oil facilities have not been damaged, and oil is still flowing.
Oil production accounts for more than 95 percent of South Sudan's economy. The young nation is rich in oil after seceding from Sudan, but it remains deeply impoverished and awash with small arms after the long conflict with Khartoum.