Juba: South Sudan's president and vice president ordered their rival forces to cease hostilities on Monday after days of fighting threatened to plunge the nation back into civil war and bring further instability to an impoverished region of Africa.
Fighting erupted four days ago in the capital Juba between loyalists of President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, the former rebel leader who became vice president under a deal to end a two-year civil war.
The violence, which has killed hundreds of people, broke out as the world's newest nation prepared to mark five years of independence from Sudan on July 9.
Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said Kiir and Machar had spoken by phone on Monday, a day which saw tanks and helicopters involved in some of the fiercest clashes yet.
"All the commanders of (Kiir's) forces are directed to cease any hostility and abide by the order and control their forces," Ateny told Reuters. "President Salva Kiir is determined to carry on his partnership with Riek Machar."
Machar responded by ordering his troops to stand down.
"The president has declared a unilateral ceasefire, I want to reciprocate the declaration of unilateral ceasefire," he told the independent Eye Radio.
However much is not clear about the latest violence in Juba, including what the objective of either side has been and how much control Kiir and Machar have over their forces.
The fighting has raised fears of a return to the civil war that erupted in late 2013 and broadly ran along ethnic lines, pitting Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, against Machar, a Nuer.
The conflict killed thousands of people, forced more than 2.5 million people from their homes and left almost half the population of 11 million people struggling to find food. Oil production, by far the biggest source of government revenue, has plummeted.
A new flare-up risks driving yet more people to refugee camps in neighbouring nations and further destabilising a region in the centre of Africa already plagued by myriad woes.
Central African Republic is riven by conflict, the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo is contending with a patchwork of militias and rebels groups, and Burundi is embroiled in a violent political crisis.
The UN Security Council on Sunday demanded Kiir and Machar rein in their forces and end the fighting. The UN mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, expressed its "outrage" after its bases in Juba were caught in the cross-fire between the two sides and two Chinese peacekeepers were killed.
Kiir and Machar have long been rivals, both in politics and on the battlefield. The civil war that broke out in 2013 came a few months after Kiir sacked Machar as his deputy.
Fighting has often erupted outside Juba since the two men signed a peace deal in August last year. But this was the first time it had flared in Juba since Machar finally returned in April after months of wrangling about terms of the pact.
Experts say the failure to swiftly implement key elements of the deal, such as integrating and demobilising their forces, has allowed tension to fester and risked igniting a new conflict.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday urged the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan, sanction leaders and commanders who blocked the implementation of a peace deal and fortify the UNMISS mission.
There has been no official death toll from the recent flare up but at least five soldiers died on Thursday and a Health Ministry source said 272 people, including 33 civilians, were killed on Friday. Sunday and Monday's fighting was more fierce.
UNMISS said gunfire had erupted on Monday around the U.N. headquarters in the Jebel area of Juba and also around a base near the airport. It said U.N. sites had been hit in exchanges of fire, killing eight and injuring 67.
China's Foreign Ministry said two of its peacekeepers were killed. Commenting on the fatalities that resulted from weekend fighting, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: "We do understand that it was a direct confrontation from the military."
Highlighting lawlessness on Juba's streets, one resident said he saw police officers trying to loot a shop in his neighbourhood by shooting off the padlocks and firing in the air to scare away people, echoing similar witness reports on Sunday.
An army spokesman told Reuters that any soldier found stealing civilian property or looting would be arrested, and shot at if they resisted.
The African regional grouping IGAD echoed the UN Secretary-General's call to beef up UNMISS's mandate, calling for it be given an enforcement role similar to a UN-backed intervention brigade working in eastern Congo.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhananom said after a meeting in Nairobi that the group "demands urgent revision of the UNMISS mandate to establish an intervention brigade and increase numbers of troops from the region".
Through the civil war, however, world powers and regional states struggled to find leverage over the warring factions, despite US and European sanctions on some military leaders and African threats of punitive actions.