STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's get an update now on the violence in South Sudan. Forces opposed to that nation's president have taken control of a major town, and killed two United Nations peacekeepers. Hundreds of other people are dead. The United States has flown in troops to protect its embassy, and a growing conflict leaves the world's newest nation near civil war.
NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner is following the story from Nairobi, Kenya. And Gregory, what is the conflict? What's behind this?
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: There's really two men at the heart of this conflict. And one is the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir. He's kind of the gruff, silent type. And then there's his longstanding rival, the former vice president, a smooth-talking, independence war hero named Riek Machar. These two men have had a longstanding rivalry. Things heated up in July, when President Kiir sacked Vice President Machar, allegedly for disloyalty. And then this weekend, according to President Kiir, there was an attempted coup against him, masterminded by Machar. That sparked massive fighting in the capital, Juba. People were locked in their homes.
Now, Machar and - the former vice president denies it. He said there was no coup. And in fact, he told Al-Jazeera this morning that Kiir had sent soldiers to his house, to execute him. But now, Machar is on the lam. President Kiir has ditched his pinstripe suit for army fatigues, and at least 10 senior government officials have been arrested. The fighting has spread from the capital to other parts of the country.
INSKEEP: Is there some divide in society reflected here, deeper than a personality conflict between these two politicians?
WARNER: President Kiir is of the Dinka ethnicity, and Machar is of the Nuer ethnicity. And a lot of the violence has fallen squarely along ethnic lines, as violence often does in South Sudan. It's long been subject to ethnic divisions. Both of those groups, though, have their own internal divisions, so it's not easy to say that this is a Dinka versus Nuer battle. However, we've heard reports of door-to-door executions of Nuer leaders, summary executions at checkpoints. Human Rights Watch has been reporting a lot of this. I spoke to Africa Deputy Director Leslie Lefkow. She says it's not ethnic warfare yet, but it could be.
LESLIE LEFKOW: If we see a kind of spiral of attack and counterattack, with people being targeted on ethnic grounds, then I think there's a very real risk that this will spin out of control and into a full-fledged war - which it's not, yet.
WARNER: So there's still hope that this can be solved politically. Right now, diplomats from neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya and other places are in talks with the president, trying to find a political solution.
INSKEEP: But how strong has the international response been?
WARNER: The international response has not been strong at all. The U.N. has basically been in the job of protecting civilians. And last night, there was an attack on a U.N. compound in Jonglei State, where much of the fighting is taking place. Three U.N. peacekeepers were killed, three Indian nationals. Allegedly, they were caught in the crossfire when a Nuer militia group was trying to hunt down some 30 Dinka civilians who were hiding. Also, the fighting has now spread to the capital of Jonglei, which is now fully - apparently - under control of the Nuer militia.
You know, this ethnic conflict has been going on for two years now. And we've heard in the headlines about these cattle raids. Now, cattle raids - it sounds like something between tribes; maybe done with lassos and arrows and six-shooters. These cattle raids are much more violent. There are attacks by one ethnic group against another ethnic group, stealing their cattle - which are like large currency here, in Sudan - but also abducting women and children, and liquidating whole villages. So you can really think of it as a proto-genocide, and a number of people have called this a genocide in the making.
So it's not just this political rivalry that's important. It's whether the political rivalry foments that sense of resentment, that pain, that feeling of victimhood on both sides; which really could develop into a civil war.
INSKEEP: NPR's Gregory Warner, following the situation in South Sudan. Gregory, thanks very much.
WARNER: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.