Hundreds of civilians, including three aid workers, were killed in a series of tribal clashes in villages in South Sudan’s vast Jonglei state, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday.
The territory of South Sudan has been plagued for decades by ethnic clashes over cattle and land, as well as blood feuds. But violence has risen in recent months after the government in February designated ten new states, including Jonglei, but failed to agree on governor appointments, creating a power vacuum.
Fighting between Lou Nuer and Murle groups broke out on Saturday in and around the town of Pieri, leaving hundreds injured and thousands displaced.
Aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in a statement on Tuesday it had lost a South Sudanese staff member and two others were injured in the clashes. A South Sudan Red Cross volunteer was also killed.
ICRC warned that COVID-19 restrictions have made it more difficult to evacuate wounded by air and to provide surgical care for trauma injuries. They said more lives will be lost if violence keeps escalating.
South Sudan’s five-year civil war erupted soon after the country’s formation in 2011 and created the worst refugee crisis in Africa since the Rwandan genocide.
“If we see the same level of violence that we saw in 2019 we can expect a greater loss of life and deeper suffering as COVID-19 hampers our ability to respond,” said James Reynolds, the ICRC’s head of delegation in South Sudan.
The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, which is currently investigating the clashes, condemned the violence and urged the government to find a deal over the appointment of governors.
“We strongly urge the Government and other parties to compromise and agree on these critical positions so the states can take measures to prevent conflict, build peace, and assist with the COVID-19 response,” said David Shearer, head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).