Growing tensions between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir’s allies and opposition forces could lead to mass violence following the country’s election next July, a senior U.N. official warned.

Armed forces supporting Riek Machar, South Sudan’s opposition leader, killed 25 people including civilians in an attack on government forces Sept.18. The attack is one of many that have killed tens of thousands and displaced 3.5 million in the civil war since 2013.

The plan to hold an election next July poses risks of “deepening and extending” the ongoing violence in South Sudan, Haile Menkerios, the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy to the African Union said Sept. 8. The election is the first vote South Sudan will hold since President Kiir was voted into his position in 2010 before the country’s separation from Sudan.

“We are now calling on the people who are still advocating for war to denounce violence, stop fighting and come back to participate in the dialogue process so that people go for elections after the end of the transitional period. Elections will people give an opportunity to make their own choices,” Kiir said in a meeting with opposition groups  Aug. 14.

The U.N. deployed 4,000 additional troops last month to reinforce 13,000 peacekeeping troops already stationed in South Sudan. Yet the violence is spreading quickly to new provinces, and the U.N. forces have been unable to prevent conflict or provide humanitarian assistance to civilians outside their bases.

The election “cannot be legitimate because political leaders who are part of the opposition who are abroad, some of them have been arrested and rendered back to Juba (South Sudan’s capital). They are not able to access the people to campaign,” said Godfrey Musila, a member of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, in an interview with Voice of America.

The commission also interviewed women who were raped by South Sudanese soldiers and reported that U.N.-protected camps currently sheltering displaced refugees have exceeded their capacity.

The civil war began in December 2013 with a confrontation between soldiers who belong to Kiir’s ethnic group and others who belong to Machar’s ethnic group after Kiir sacked  then Vice President Machar. A peace accord signed in 2015 fell apart in three months, and Machar and his supporters have fled South Sudan’s capital or left the country.

(Written by Seoyoon Choi; Sept. 25, 2017)

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