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JUBA, South Sudan — South Sudan, the world's newest country, is threatened by rapidly escalating ethnic violence, as officials said Thursday that the government no longer controls the capital of its largest and most populous state.

President Salva Kiir's earlier claim that an attempted coup had triggered the ongoing violence was false, said a ruling party official. Instead the violence broke out Sunday when the presidential guard attempted to disarm fellow guard members who belong to the Nuer ethnic group, said Choul Laam, chief of staff for the secretary general of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

Those who tried to do the disarming were members of Kiir's majority Dinka tribe, Laam told reporters in Nairobi.

"The situation in South Sudan can be best described as tense and fragile. If it is not contained it could lead to ethnic cleansing," Laam warned.

The South Sudan government said the violence has already killed up to 500 people. Juba, the capital, was reported calm Wednesday and Thursday, but clashes were reported in Jonglei state.

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