Strife-torn South Sudan on the edge - UN

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iol pic afr southsudan refugees AFP A woman and her children, displaced by fighting in South Sudan, rest outside their tent at the Kule Camp for Internally Displaced People at the Pagak border crossing in Gambella, Ethiopia. Picture: Zacharias Abubeker

New York -

A top UN official on Wednesday told the Security Council that a fresh wave of violence in South Sudan is dragging the world's youngest country closer to a “humanitarian catastrophe” as the global body bolsters its military presence there.

Edmond Mulet, the UN assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, warned council members that militia violence in South Sudan has displaced more than a million people. Almost 500 000 more have fled across borders.

The widespread displacement has been compounded by hunger and food problems. Almost four million people are at risk of going hungry amid growing concerns of famine, Mulet said. Up to 50 000 children are at risk of dying of acute malnutrition this year alone.

A cholera epidemic worsens, with 5 300 cases and 115 deaths, Mulet added.

“After three years of independence, South Sudan is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe and a protracted internal conflict,” Mulet said. “This is a man-made crisis, and those responsible for it have been slow in resolving it.”

South Sudan Ambassador Joseph Moum Malok said his government was committed to reaching a “final settlement for the conflict through negotiation” but that it has also been “forced to react in self-defence to protect its citizens”.

Peace talks between South Sudan's government and rebel fighters in Ethiopia were restarted on Monday with the aim of creating a transitional government, but they have yet to yield any breakthroughs following fresh clashes along the South Sudan-Sudan border. Some believe the violence threatens to pull Sudan and its rebel groups into South Sudan's civil war.

A militia hunting the Nuer ethnic group has been blamed for the deaths of at least six South Sudanese aid workers in recent days. All of the murdered aid workers are members of the Nuer, to which former vice-president and current rebel leader Riek Machar belongs.

Fighting broke out in December after President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused Machar of trying to oust him in a coup. That sparked months of ethnic attacks and failed ceasefires.

The Security Council, which plans to visit South Sudan next week, expressed “outrage” at the recent attacks targeting civilians and humanitarian personnel, and underscored that such attacks “may constitute war crimes”.

A press statement approved by the 15 council members demanded an end to all human rights violations and reiterated the council's call on South Sudan's government to take steps immediately to ensure the safety of civilians, investigate the recent attacks, and “bring the perpetrators of these heinous acts to justice”.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US Ambassador Samantha Power said in separate statements Wednesday that “there is no military solution” to the crisis in South Sudan while pressing for a peaceful resolution. They also condemned the killing of the aid workers.

In an effort to stop the violence, a massive humanitarian effort has begun to take root, Mulet said.

Armoured personnel carriers are en route to Bunj, the epicentre of the violence, to protect UN personnel, aid workers and civilians inside UN facilities. More than 3 500 UN troops, out of an authorised total of 5 500, have been deployed. An infantry battalion, military helicopters and additional aircraft are expected to follow by October. Four police units will reach South Sudan in some six months.

“The scale of humanitarian operations in South Sudan has reached the point that it now constitutes the biggest aid operation in any single country,” Mulet said.

Still, people are leaving. The UN mission in South Sudan reports that a 220 people working for the UN and non-governmental organisations were flown out of Bunj on Wednesday. More people were expected to be evacuated.

South Sudan is a largely Christian nation that broke off from the Muslim-dominated Sudan after a 2011 referendum. - Sapa-AP

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