Fighting intensified Monday in South Sudan’s capital Juba, following several days of clashes between the army and troops loyal to former rebel leader Riek Machar that have killed hundreds and sent thousands fleeing.

“Today’s fighting is worse. Heavy artillery is being used,” Juba resident Rose Kogi said.

The presidency earlier put the death toll at 270, but it was thought to be higher by now. The fatalities included two Chinese peacekeepers, the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV tweeted. The UN Security Council said Chinese and Rwandan peacekeepers had been “killed or injured.”

Residents reported fighting in Jebel neighbourhood, where Machar has his residence. Rebel spokesman James Gatdet accused President Salva Kiir’s troops of attacking Machar’s positions there for the second day.

“I have been indoors since yesterday. Even now helicopters are hovering in the sky," Jebel resident Charles Age said.

“Heavy fighting is taking place around the UN base and behind Jebel. Two planes are flying” above, resident Charles Oyet said, adding he had been left without food.

Army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang told dpa that a helicopter was flying over Jebel “to improve the security, but it has not fired.”

Kiir’s troops “have been repulsed now,” Gatdet said on Facebook.

Ruai Koang said there was fighting near the airport. Kenya Airways and the Rwandan airline Rwandair have cancelled flights to Juba.

The US embassy said on Facebook the State Department had "authorized an ordered departure" of non-security personnel from South Sudan.

The fighting was meanwhile reported to be spreading to other towns, including Torit in the south.

“Our reporter in Torit says hundreds of people running to the UN compound following a shoot-out this morning,” UN-operated Radio Miraya tweeted.

City officials said an attack by unknown gunmen had been repelled and called on those who had fled to go back home, a local journalist told dpa.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR was meanwhile making preparations for refugees to cross into Uganda, but they were left stranded on the border, UNHCR spokesman Charles Yaxley said.

“They cannot cross into Uganda because the South Sudan government has closed all crossings,” Yaxley said by telephone from Kampala.

The spokesman said the UNHCR was preparing for an influx of thousands of refugees by erecting camps, and stocking up on food and medical supplies.

“Two-thirds of those displaced are children and so nutrition requirements need to be stockpiled. The refugees are robbed of all their possessions by members of armed groups. We also need psychotherapy staff as some people suffer trauma, wounds and others were raped,” Yaxley said.

The fighting has been going on since Thursday, dealing a blow to hopes of peace after Kiir and Machar signed a peace agreement in August 2015 and formed a national unity government in April.

A power struggle between the two escalated into an armed conflict in December 2013, killing tens of thousands and displacing more than 2 million people.

Independent armed groups which form occasional alliances with one of the two sides also operate in the country.

The UN Security Council condemned the violence “in the strongest terms” and warned that “attacks against civilians and UN premises and personnel may constitute war crimes”.

Festus Mogae, chairman of a ceasefire monitoring commission set up by the East African bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development, appealed for an immediate ceasefire and to the international community to “secure stability and ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance to the people of South Sudan.”

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