Africa's newest country, South Sudan, is plunging toward the brink of civil war as brutal killings escalate and the government vows to launch a counterattack against rebels who have seized two key regions.
Summary executions and revenge killings are continuing, more than 100,000 people have been driven from their homes, a United Nations base has come under attack and a UN official said on Monday that the death toll after a week of violence has probably surpassed 1,000 – twice as high as previous estimates.
Despite international efforts at a diplomatic solution, President Salva Kiir told parliament on Monday that his army is now "ready to move" against the rebels. His officials said the army is planning a "major offensive."
Much of the conflict is rooted in a power struggle between Mr. Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar, who was fired in July. But there is also an ethnic dimension to the conflict, fuelled by tensions between the Nuer and the Dinka, the two biggest ethnic groups in South Sudan.
Canadian citizens are reported to be among 15,000 people trapped at a UN base in Bor, capital of Jonglei state, where some of the worst killings have erupted in recent days.
In Ottawa, a federal official said the government is "working hard" to find space for Canadians on emergency evacuation flights from South Sudan. About 100 Canadians are registered as being in South Sudan, but there may be many others who did not register with Canadian authorities.
"Canada is deeply concerned by the reports of ethnically targeted violence in South Sudan," said Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. "The perpetrators of these crimes should be identified and brought to justice."
On Tuesday, the UN Security Council is expected to approve a request for an additional 5,500 troops and 423 police, plus six helicopters and a transport plane, to reinforce the existing UN peacekeeping mission of about 7,000 soldiers in South Sudan.
About 150 U.S. Marines arrived in the Horn of Africa country of Djibouti on Monday to prepare for a possible mission into South Sudan to help rescue U.S. citizens and provide security for the U.S. embassy.
Four U.S. troops were wounded on Saturday when their military aircraft came under fire during a mission to evacuate Americans from Bor. Two UN peacekeepers were killed in another town in Jonglei state when their base was attacked. And on Monday, the UN said a South Sudanese aid worker had been summarily executed in Unity state.
Diplomats are trying to mediate between Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar, but the two rivals have not yet begun to talk. The President said he is willing to talk to Mr. Machar, as long as there are no preconditions. But Mr. Machar has said he will not enter negotiations until the government frees about a dozen of his political allies who were detained last week when the conflict erupted. The government has refused to do so.
Mr. Kiir admitted on Monday that the rebels under Mr. Machar now control two key states: Jonglei and Unity. The latter is a major oil-producing region. But the government has denied the claims by the rebels that they control all of the major oil fields in Unity and Upper Nile states.
The conflict began last week in the capital, Juba, but has rapidly spread to other regions. In Upper Nile state, fighting broke out on Sunday and 24 gunshot victims were brought to a hospital run by Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). "We are deeply concerned for the safety of those caught up in the violence," said a statement by Mike White, a Canadian who is head of the MSF mission in South Sudan.
South Sudan, which split from Sudan and became independent in 2011 after a civil war that killed more than a million people over two decades, has been plagued by widespread poverty and corruption, despite billions of dollars in oil revenue and foreign aid.
Tensions grew worse when Mr. Machar, an ethnic Nuer, declared that he would challenge Mr. Kiir, a Dinka, for the leadership of the ruling party and would seek the presidency in the 2015 election.
Matthew LeRiche, a Canadian author and expert on South Sudan, said the fighting in South Sudan is the most dangerous since the 2005 peace agreement that ended the war between Sudan's south and north. "For years, a scenario similar to what we see unfolding now was the most feared," he said in an e-mail.
The violence was not a tribal conflict at its beginning, but "ethnic differences are being exploited and used as propaganda to rally support," he said.
He said the current crisis was triggered by the announcement of a major opposition rally, which led to "great concern and suspicion" among Mr. Kiir's security services, who detained or arrested many of those involved in planning the rally. Arrest warrants were issued for some of the key opposition leaders, which sparked the first wave of fighting and a split in the South Sudan army.