UN told up to 500 killed in South Sudan clashes: Diplomats

UNITED NATIONS (REUTERS) - The United Nations received reports from local sources in South Sudan on Tuesday that between 400 and 500 people had been killed and up to 800 wounded in the latest violence, and the government said it had arrested 10 politicians in connection with a "foiled coup".

"Two hospitals have recorded between 400 and 500 dead and (up to) 800 wounded," a diplomat in New York said on condition of anonymity, citing an estimate United Nations peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous gave during a closed-door briefing for the 15-member body.

Another diplomat confirmed Mr Ladsous' remarks, adding that the United Nations was not in a position to verify the figures.

Earlier on Tuesday, a South Sudanese health ministry official told Reuters that at least 26 people were dead after fighting in Juba between rival groups of soldiers from Sunday night into Monday morning. Sporadic gunfire and blasts continued up to Tuesday evening.

The Juba government said it had arrested 10 major political figures and was hunting for its former vice-president, accusing him of leading a failed coup in the oil-producing country's capital, where gunfire rang out for a second day.

The prominence of the names, including former finance minister Kosti Manibe among those who had been detained, underlined the size of the rift in Africa's newest state, less than two and a half years after it seceded from Sudan.

The United States urged its citizens to leave the country immediately, and said it was suspending normal operations at its embassy.

President Salva Kiir, dressed in military fatigues, said on television on Monday that forces loyal to former vice president Riek Machar, whom he sacked in July, had attacked an army base in a bid to seize power.

South Sudan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in Africa despite its oil reserves, and it is plagued by ethnic fighting.

The rift at the heart of its political elite will dismay oil companies that had been counting on a period of relative stability after South Sudan's independence so they could step up exploration. France's Total and some largely Asian groups, among them China's CNPC, have interests there.

It will also be closely watched by South Sudan's neighbours, who include some of the continent's most promising economies, including Ethiopia and Kenya.

French UN Ambassador Gerard Araud, president of the Security Council this month, told reporters the council was trying to get clarity on the situation in South Sudan and would again discuss the upsurge in violence there in the coming days.