JUBA, South Sudan — Fighting in South Sudan has killed up to 500 people, U.N. diplomats said Tuesday, and the United Nations fears the violence in the oil-rich East African country is largely along ethnic lines.
The United States ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan.
The president of South Sudan, which is also the world's newest country, has blamed the violence on a coup attempt by soldiers loyal to his former deputy, who belongs to a different ethnic group.
As many as 20,000 people have taken refuge with the U.N. mission in the capital, Juba, the president of the Security Council, French Ambassador Gerard Araud, told reporters.
Araud said the council received only "patchy information" in a special briefing Tuesday evening by the U.N. peacekeeping chief, with the cause of the violence unknown.
"We are extremely concerned," Araud said. "There is a heavy toll, that's obvious," he added.
U.N. diplomats said they were told that local sources in Juba put the death toll at 400 to 500, but that figure could not be verified.
Araud said that for the moment, civilians are not being targeted, and he described the violence as "infighting between soldiers."
President Salva Kiir told the nation on Monday that a group of soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, whom he fired in July amid a power struggle, tried to take power by force but were defeated.
Kiir is from the majority Dinka tribe, and Machar belongs to the Nuer tribe. The alleged coup attempt took place Sunday when some soldiers raided the main army barracks' weapons store in Juba but were repelled by loyalists, sparking gunfights across the city, Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told the Associated Press.
Some officials had previously estimated the casualties could be in the hundreds.
There are "disturbing reports of ethnically targeted killings," with most of the fighting pitting soldiers from the Dinka tribe against those from the Nuer tribe, said Casie Copeland, the South Sudan analyst for the nongovernmental International Crisis Group, based in Belgium.