The death of three Indian U.N. peacekeepers on Thursday has brought into sharp focus a power struggle, whose roots may lie not so much in an inter-ethnic contest for political ascendancy, but a larger tussle for the control and diversion of South Sudan’s rich energy and mineral resources.

The three soldiers were killed when fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar spiralled on Thursday, resulting in an attack on a U.N. peacekeeping base. The targeted U.N. stronghold in the town of Akobo is in Jonglei State whose capital Bor is already under the control of Mr. Machar’s forces, making it an ideal base for a further advance. U.N. forces are protecting 14,000 civilians who have fled the fighting in Bor.

More than 500 people have so far been killed amid fears that a civil war may be on the cards, riding on the growing animosities between the country’s Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups.

Government forces are in control of capital Juba, but a flurry of aerial evacuations are underway from areas of conflict to safer locations. The U.N. Security Council is meeting on Friday to take stock of the volatile situation.

The fighting has coincided with attacks on certain oil companies, signalling that the brewing political struggle could mask a larger tussle for control over the country’s resources. Land-locked South Sudan exports around 2,20,000 barrels a day from reserves that are the third highest after Nigeria and Angola in sub-Saharan Africa.

Iran’s Press TV is reporting that at least five workers from China’s Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC) were killed late on Wednesday by a group of armed men that had entered the compound.

Separately 11 people were reportedly killed at the Thar Jath oil field.

These attacks have taken place in South Sudan’s Unity State, home to some of Asia’s top oil majors including India’s ONGC Videsh and Malaysia’s Petronas. South Sudan contains most of the oil but its transportation along pipelines is mainly through Sudan.

Joe Contreras, the U.N. spokesman in South Sudan was quoted as saying that around 200 oil workers, who had sought refuge in a U.N. base in Unity State, were likely to be evacuated by their employers.

China is a major investor in South Sudan’s oil sector. However, it is also trying to expand its economic footprint, especially in the promising mining area. In September, South Sudan’s Mining Minister Stephen Dhieu Dau announced that the government was willing to “give Chinese companies the opportunity to invest in the Republic of South Sudan in the areas of petroleum and mining industries, and also in other economic circles”.

Apart from oil, South Sudanese officials have said that their country, which came into existence in 2011 with western support, has large untapped deposits of gold, diamonds, copper, uranium, and manganese and iron ore.

As the conflict escalated, a group of African Ministers including Uganda’s International Affairs Minister Oryem Henry Okello is heading to South Sudan to start talks. But, Mr. Machar has insisted that the President must step down first if talks are to succeed.

“We want him (Mr.Kiir) to leave. We want him to leave. That’s it,” Mr. Machar told Radio France Internationale.” He can’t unite the people and he kills them like flies.”

AP adds:

34,000 seeking shelter from violence

The U.N. says 34,000 people in South Sudan are seeking refuge at U.N. bases in three locations across the country.

The U.N.’s humanitarian arm said on Friday that 20,000 people are seeking shelter in the capital, Juba, while 14,000 are seeking shelter in Bor. Several hundred people are seeking shelter in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, where South Sudan’s oil fields are concentrated.

The U.S. Embassy was flying out a fifth emergency evacuation flight on Friday. A German plane was also scheduled to fly out.

More In: World | International | News