JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Frantic civilians are drowning as they flee a new eruption in fighting in South Sudan and perhaps hundreds have died in the attacks, the United Nations said Thursday.
“Initial reports describe unimaginable scenes of Adidiang (town) set ablaze, humanitarian structures established as recent as two weeks ago destroyed and civilians fleeing the fighting by canoes and boats, leading to several people drowning,” the U.N. peacekeeping mission said in a statement.
South Sudan has struggled with violence between armed groups in the years since civil war ended in 2018. Thousands of people have been displaced since mid-August by fighting in and around the town of Tonga in Upper Nile state. On Wednesday, fighting broke out near Adidiang, where thousands of displaced people had taken refuge.
According to unconfirmed reports nearly 300 people have been killed in the attacks, the U.N. said.
“This kind of violence, in an area hosting displaced civilians, is unconscionable,” said the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, Sara Beysolow Nyanti.
According to an internal U.N. report seen by The Associated Press, the field office in the city of Malakal on Wednesday afternoon received a report that the White Army, an armed group, had attacked the camp for displaced people at Adidiang and fighting was ongoing. It was not clear what led to the attack.
“A rescue mission was immediately sent,” the U.N. report said.
But it said more than 100 people had drowned.
“All partners are engaged in a race against time to save those at risk of drowning in their haste to flee the violence,” the U.N.’s public statement said.
The Danish Refugee Council said it tried to reach the scene but could not.
“Yesterday, on the way to Adidiang to assess the situation and verify the numbers of people there, our team was advised to return back to Malakal,” country director Alana Mascoll told the AP in an email. “They reported heavy civilian movement on the river towards Malakal. There were canoes and larger boats with people heading toward the camp.”
She said concerns are especially high for unaccompanied children, the elderly and people with disabilities since the journey of up to three days is especially difficult for them.
“As traumatized civilians start arriving in Malakal, humanitarian partners estimate that up to 5,000 people could arrive in the coming hours and days,” the U.N. said. But fighting occurred even within the camp for displaced people in Malakal on Wednesday night, it added, saying the violence was contained but concerns remained about the spreading tensions.
The White Army is loyal to Gen. Gatwich Dual, the leader of the SPLM-IO Kitgwang armed group and a former army chief of staff for former opposition fighter and current Vice President Riek Machar.
The White Army is thought to be fighting Agwelek forces loyal to Gen. Johnson Olony, a former senior army officer under Machar.
Upper Nile state’s minister of information, Luke Sadallah, blamed the fighting on SPLM-IO Kitgwang splinter groups and called on them to stop their confrontation and stop harming civilians.
“There is no benefit in this battle,” Sadallah told the AP by phone.
Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed.