March 5, 2014 (JUBA) – About 20 soldiers remain unaccounted for and four officers have been arrested following the eruption of heavy gunfire in the South Sudan capital, Juba, on Wednesday after a dispute among army units over salary payments inside the main military barracks.
- A group of soldiers from the South Sudan army gather around a truck while on patrol in the capital, Juba (Photo: Samir Bol/AFP/Getty Images)
Head of information and public relations with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) Brigadier General Malaak Ayuen said those arrested are believed to have instigated the incident, with more arrests expected as authorities continue to search for other suspects.
A senior officer earlier denied reports that there had been attempts to arrest individual officers, including the commander of the commando unit.
The officer said the incident occurred after some officers and soldiers who were waiting for payments refused to wait in line or follow the established procedures as set down by the payment committee.
“The same group also wanted to take salaries of the colleagues whose whereabouts is unknown,” the officer said.
Defence minister Kuol Manyang Juuk said the army’s leadership would investigate what triggered the firing, applauding security organs for taking “swift action to contain the situation”.
Sounds of gunfire and heavy artillery from the Geida military barracks at about 9am (local time) today sparked panic among residents, with many fleeing their work places.
Large explosions were also heard from barracks, located south-east of Juba, the same place where violence erupted on 15 December between soldiers loyal to president Salva Kiir and those aligned with former vice-president Riek Machar.
Sources told Sudan Tribune that a thick column of smoke billowing above the compound was coming from a military store that had been hit by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG).
Ayuen said the bodies of five soldiers killed during the incident were taken to the mortuary, while four others were wounded.
However, when Sudan Tribune visited the scene up to 18 bodies could be seen lying on the ground outside the military headquarters, including two that appeared to have been run over by tanks while attempting to flee.
Twelve bodyguards of the commander of the commando unit, Gatwiech Gai, are also missing, feared dead.
Seeking protection, Gai reportedly fled to the home of the army’s chief-of-staff, General James Hoth Mai.
Cabinet affairs minister Martin Elia Lomoru also confirmed that salaries were in the process of being paid when heavy gunfire heavy erupted inside the barracks.
“I understand that salary payment was ongoing in Geida this morning, probably differences over the procedures payment may have sparked the firing,” he said.
The government’s decision to form a payment committee was introduced to ensure wages are not paid to “ghost” workers or those who do not show up during payment period, with troops and civil servants now required to collect their salaries in person
“The whole intention was for the good of the country. It was not meant to deny anybody their rightful dues. If there are different interpretations, then let our people know that the intention was to build confidence in our financial systems so that the issue of transparency and accountability is not ignored,” Lomoru told reporters earlier today.
Ayuen also confirmed that tensions over the new payment system were behind the incident.
Speaking to reporters shortly after visiting the scene, Ayuen said the situation is now under control and the SPLA would provide further updates later today following further investigation.
Several roads in and around Juba town have been blocked by the authorities. Affected areas include Juba-Yei road where further gunfire occurred.
Disruptions to phone networks during the morning also made communications difficult.
MISUNDERSTANDING NOT REBELLION
Meanwhile, a minister in the office of the president, Awan Guol Riak, denied the incident was the result of a rebellion.
“It was just a misunderstanding which arose between soldiers. The situation is now under control,” Riak told journalists at a news briefing.
However, multiple military sources, who are part of the payment committee, told Sudan Tribune that they had been instructed not to pay those residing at UN camps or accept payment claims from a third party, regardless of the justification.
A military source said a group of soldiers who were attempting to collect payments on behalf of colleagues not listed on the payroll became agitated after their requests were refused by the committee.
“A small misunderstanding triggered this firing and the unfortunate loss of lives,” the source said.
“We asked them (the soldiers) to inform them (their colleagues) to come so that they could be paid, but they did not want to listen to the advice of the committee and they started shouting [and] moving towards where the money was kept. This prompted intervention of the soldiers deployed to provide protection to the committee,” he added.
The unrest appeared to be confined to the Geida barracks, although large numbers of government forces were swiftly deployed in surrounding streets, with roadblocks set up on routes leading to the airport and military headquarters.
Sporadic gunfire can still be heard in the southern part of Juba and markets remain closed, although the situation on the ground continues to be calm.
The US embassy in Juba has issued a statement, advising its nationals to stay indoors for their personal safety.