Clashes between rival factions in South Sudan have reportedly killed 400-500 people, UN diplomats have said. The latest clashes follow an apparent coup attempt by soldiers loyal to former vice president Riek Machar.
UN officials said Tuesday they had received reports of the latest death toll from local sources in South Sudan's capital Juba.
"Two hospitals have recorded between 400 and 500 dead and [up to] 800 wounded," a diplomat in New York said on condition of anonymity, citing an estimate United Nations peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous gave the UN Security Council during a closed-door briefing.
France's UN ambassador and Security Council president Gerard Araud would not confirm the toll, but said the body was "extremely concerned."
"There is a heavy toll, that's obvious," Araud said, adding that, for the moment, civilians were not being targeted. He described the violence as "infighting between soldiers."
He said between 15,000 and 20,000 people had taken refuge with the UN mission Juba.
The United States meanwhile has ordered all non-essential embassy staff and citizens to leave South Sudan immediately as clashes intensify.
Fighting between rival factions of the armed forces erupted on Sunday, with reports of sporadic gunfire and blasts continuing late into Tuesday evening.
In a television statement on Monday South Sudan's president Salva Kiir blamed the violence on a coup attempt by soldiers loyal to his former deputy Riek Machar, who belongs to a different ethnic group. Dressed in military fatigues Kiir said forces loyal to Machar had attacked an army base on Sunday in an attempt to seize power.
The government claims to have arrested 10 key figures, including ex-ministers, although Machar's whereabouts remains unknown.
South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, witnessed a power struggle between Kiir and his former deputy for several months. Kiir fired Machar from his post in July, raising fears of a political upheaval in the country.
Machar has said he plans to contest the presidency in 2015, and has openly accused Kiir of establishing a dictatorship.
ccp/av (AFP, Reuters, AP)