Juba - Heavy fighting broke out in the main military barracks in war-torn South Sudan's capital Juba on Wednesday, underscoring serious tensions within the national army as it battles a rebel uprising.
An AFP reporter said the sound of heavy gunfire was heard coming from the main barracks near Juba University, home to the presidential guards and other elite troops, from 9.30am (06.30 GMT), with the shooting ending two hours later.
According to independent Tamazuj radio, the fighting started after soldiers argued with a military pay committee. It said several people were dead, but there was no immediate confirmation of the number of casualties and the army could not be reached for comment.
The US embassy in Juba issued a statement advising people to stay indoors, and a diplomatic source in the city cited reports of five to seven soldiers killed in the clashes.
“We are trying to establish what happened, although it seems that troops who have not been paid went to the barracks to help themselves,” the diplomat said.
However there were unconfirmed reports in other local media that the fighting broke out between guards loyal to President Salva Kiir and a commando unit under top general Gatwech Gai.
The conflict in South Sudan started in the capital Juba and under similar circumstances nearly three months ago amid tensions within the ruling party of President Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar.
The December 15 clashes, which spilt the army along ethnic lines, quickly spread across the country.
Since the initial week of fighting in Juba, the capital has been largely calm and key installations have been guarded by Ugandan troops who have intervened in the conflict in support of President Kiir.
Fighting between the national army and the rebels - made up of defectors and ethnic militia - has been centred around the towns of Bor, Malakal and Bentiu further north.
The unrest in South Sudan, the world's newest nation which won independence from Khartoum in 2011, has left thousands dead and has displaced close to 900 000 people, including tens of thousands who have crammed into UN bases in fear of ethnic attacks.
The government and rebels signed a ceasefire on January 23, but the truce has seen frequent violations - including a rebel assault on Malakal.
In neighbouring Ethiopia, regional bloc IGAD - which has been trying to broker peace talks aimed at addressing the root causes of the conflict - said efforts to resolve the conflict were making progress, albeit very marginal.
“What has been going on for the last two weeks was in short can be characterised as talks about talks,” IGAD special envoy Seyoum Mesfin told reporters.
On Tuesday IGAD said the government and rebels would be taking a two-week break from the negotiations, with the peace talks scheduled to resume on March 20.