March 5, 2014 (JUBA) – The South Sudan army (SPLA) and government has put death toll from military clashes that erupted inside the main barracks in the capital, Juba, on Wednesday at five, although there are reports that at least 30 soldiers were killed from both sides.
- An SPLA soldier walks away from a vehicle while on patrol in Juba on 21 December 2013 (Photo: Reuters)
SPLA information and communication director Brig. Gen. Malaak Ayuen described the eruption of gunfire Wednesday morning as “limited”, saying the incident broke out over a salary payment dispute and involved only a few individuals.
“What happened this morning was a very limited shooting, by a limited number of some few commandos in a very limited area,” Ayuen told a press conference in Juba on Wednesday.
Ayuen has confirmed that four officers have been arrested in connection to the incident.
Heavy gunfire was heard about 9am (local time) coming from the Geida military barracks south of Juba, the seat of the presidential brigade known as Tiger, sparking panic across the city.
A thick column of smoke could later be seen billowing from the facility, the same site where fighting erupted on 15 December between soldiers aligned with former vice-president Riek Machar and those loyal to president Salva Kiir before spreading to other regions across the country.
Kiir has accused Machar, who heads the rebel movement, of staging a coup attempt to overthrow the government.
A soldier at the scene in Juba today told Sudan Tribune that he had counted 27 bodies and , with several others injured. Other sources claimed the death toll could be at least 30, although this could not be independently confirmed.
When Sudan Tribune visited the scene earlier on Wednesday 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.
An account provided by one soldier who was at the Geida barracks said the fighting broke out when soldiers in the Commando unit, under commander Gen. Gatwech Gai, opened fire on officers receiving their salary payments.
There remain conflicting reports of what sparked the shooting and Gai could not be reached for comment.
However, it is alleged that some soldiers attempted to collect the salaries on behalf of some of their colleagues who were not on the payroll, but this was refused as government employees are now required to collect payments in person.
Multiple military sources, who are part of the government’s new 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.
The requirement is part of a government directive to ensure wages are not paid to so-called “ghost” workers or those who do not show up during the payment period.
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.
Speaking to journalists earlier on Wednesday. Awan Guol Riak, a minister in the office of the president, 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 said.
Gunfire could be heard overnight from the direction of Juba international airport, although the situation in Juba remains calm.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing the flash of gunfire in the sky above the city.
A resident in the Munuki area, which adjoins the airport’s Thongpiny area, said soldiers exchanged fire at the junction behind parliamentary buildings, with gunfire continuing for at least 20 minutes before coming to an end after a large explosion.
Sporadic gunshots could also be heard in the Geida area, although residents said this may have been bullets exploding from a military store that is still burning after reportedly being hit by a rocket propelled grenade earlier in the day.
Large numbers of government forces were deployed in surrounding streets following the incident, with roadblocks set up on routes leading to the airport and military headquarters.
Both the US and British embassies in Juba issued advisories to their citizens in the capital.