THE escalating violence in South Sudan is not ethnic in nature, church leaders have said, despite reports of attacks on citizens based on their ethnic affiliation.
In a letter published on Wednesday, a number of leaders, including the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, the most Revd Daniel Deng Bul, wrote: "We condemn and correct the media statements and reports that refer to the violence as conflict between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. . . These are political differences among the Sudan People's Liberation Movement Party [SPLM]."
The letter-writers appeal to the two communities of Dinka and Nuer "not to accept that the conflict is between to tribes", and to the army to "take control of the situation and protect its citizens".
They note reports: "Soldiers are asking civilians to identify themselves by tribes, and we cannot accept to be identified by our tribes as we are all South Sudanese."
The violence began in the capital, Juba, on Sunday, when the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka and leader of the ruling SPLM party, accused Riek Machar, his former deputy, from the Nuer tribe, of attempting to stage a coup. Mr Kiir dismissed his cabinet, including Mr Machar, in July. The fighting has since spread to other parts of the country, and reports suggest that hundreds of people have been killed.
The UN reports that about 35,000 people have fled to the bases of its peacekeeping mission since Sunday. On Thursday it reported that its compound in Akobo had been stormed by "unknown assailants", possibly killing or injuring civilians. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said he was "appalled" to learn of the attack.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that she had received reports of civilians killed in Juba based on their ethnicity. "The risk of seeing the fighting taking on an ethnic dimension is extremely high, and could result in a dangerous situation."
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that soldiers had "specifically targeted people from the Nuer ethnic group". Three independent sources had told the organisation that soldiers had pulled a Nuer minister, the Revd Simon Nyang Lam, out of his house, and killed him.
Daniel Bekele, Africa director at HRW, said: "We are deeply concerned that ethnically-based attacks on all sides will lead to revenge attacks and more violence."
On Thursday, Mr Machar told The Guardian that a rebellion against Mr Kiir had begun in the army. "The SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] are fed up with Salva Kiir and want him out." He denied that he had tried to take power illegally, and said that he remained loyal to the SPLM.
On Friday, talks were taking place with ministers from other African countries. The government of South Sudan said that it was ready for dialogue, to prevent a return to war.
The foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, told Reuters: "We have a military coup on our hands which is causing a lot of instability in the country, and is being played up in certain areas as if it is a racial ethnic war, which is not the case."
On Friday, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, called for prayers for South Sudan, with which the diocese has links.