Israeli aid workers in South Sudan found themselves caught up in fighting Monday as rebels attempted to overthrow the government of the world’s youngest nation.
Workers in the capital of Juba sought shelter with members of other international NGOs after a group of soldiers attempted to stage a coup d’etat. Officials said the attempted overthrow was quickly suppressed.
IsraAID founding director Shachar Zahavi told The Times of Israel on Monday afternoon that the organization had three workers stationed in Juba and that they were waiting out the coup in a compound that was sheltered from the fighting.
“I hope they are not in danger as long as they stay away from the streets. They are in a closed compound,” Zahavi said. “I hope we will be able to evacuate them within a day or two.”
Zahavi said rescue efforts were rendered impossible Monday by the closure of the airport and borders of South Sudan, but that Israel was coordinating with the French and American embassies in Juba, as well as with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, to secure their extraction.
“All foreigners are just waiting in closed compounds, and we are waiting to see how to evacuate the team,” he said.
He added that currently “nobody can do anything” to evacuate the three workers, and that communication with them — mostly by email — is intermittent.
IsraAID is an Israeli aid relief organization that has been active in the Philippines, Jordan, South Sudan and other countries.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir said Monday that soldiers loyal to a former vice president attempted to overthrow the government.
Flanked by government officials, Kiir — who put on fatigues with an army general’s epaulets — said in a televised address to the nation that the military had foiled a coup orchestrated by “a group of soldiers allied with the former vice president.” The soldiers had attacked the South Sudanese military headquarters near Juba University late Sunday, sparking sporadic clashes that continued Monday, he said.
“The attackers went and (the) armed forces are pursuing them,” Kiir said Monday. “I promise you today that justice will prevail.”
The government is now “in full control of the military situation” in Juba, he said, ordering a dawn-to-dusk curfew in the city.
Details of the attempted coup remained sketchy, but South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told The Associated Press Monday that troops within the main army base raided the weapons store in Juba but were repulsed. Some politicians had since been arrested, he said, but could not confirm if former vice president Riek Machar — who he said led the attempted coup — was among those in detention. Benjamin said the coup was plotted by “disgruntled” soldiers and politicians led by Machar.
One Israeli aid worker, Ophelie Namiech, documented the coup, writing of heavy gunfire that went on for 12 hours.
“”In the early morning, residents of my compound, including local staff, were all maddened, not knowing what was going on. We realized we were stuck, as movement was impossible amidst gunfire. It sounded like we were in the middle of a warzone,” Namiech wrote.
Namiech stated that while foreigners was told to stay indoors, people were beginning to worry about food shortages.
“The entire city is under siege by the army,” she said.
“Information remains limited. Communication networks are interrupted from time to time. Hundreds of civilians have been seeking refuge in the UN compounds, a large number being women and children,” she said.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan on Monday reported the sound of mortar and heavy machine-gun fire, saying hundreds of civilians had sought refuge inside UN facilities.
Tension had been mounting in South Sudan since Kiir fired Machar as his deputy in July. Machar, who has expressed a willingness to contest the presidency in 2015, said after he was fired that if the country is to be united it cannot tolerate a “one man’s rule or it cannot tolerate dictatorship.” His ouster, part of a wider dismissal of the entire cabinet by Kiir, had followed reports of a power struggle within the ruling party. At the time, the United States and the European Union urged calm amid fears the dismissals could spark political upheaval in the country.
While Kiir is leader of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement party, many of the dismissed ministers, including Machar, were key figures in the rebel movement that fought a decades-long war against Sudan that led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Machar, a deputy chairman of the ruling party, is one of the country’s most influential politicians.
The local Sudan Tribune newspaper reported on its website that military clashes erupted late Sunday between members of the presidential guard in fighting that seemed to pit soldiers from Kiir’s Dinka tribe against those from the Nuer tribe of Machar.
Hilde Johnson, special representative of the United Nations secretary-general for South Sudan, said in a statement that the UN mission in Juba was “deeply concerned” over the fighting that broke out late Sunday and which continued Monday.
“As the Special Representative of the Secretary General I urge all parties in the fighting to cease hostilities immediately and exercise restraint,” the statement sad. “I have been in touch regularly with the key leaders, including at the highest levels to call for calm.”
South Sudan has experienced bouts of ethnic violence, especially in rural Jonglei state, since the country peacefully broke away from Sudan after a brutal civil war.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.