At least 10 people were killed in the South Sudanese town of Wau on Monday, as ethnic militias went house to house searching for people from other groups, witnesses said.
Streets were deserted as families hid inside, residents told Reuters by phone. Some reported seeing killings.
Witnesses said the militias were aligned with government in the country’s ethnically-charged civil war. They accused soldiers of blocking the main road to a civilian encampment protected by UN peacekeepers.
South Sudan’s deputy army spokesperson, Colonel Santo Domic Chol, said fighting first broke out during a mutiny by soldiers at the town’s prison. He was awaiting more information, he said.
The fighting followed an ambush that killed a brigadier general and a colonel in Wau state over the weekend, a rebel spokesman based outside the country said.
“This morning government forces were retaliating against innocent Fertit people,” he said, referring to a local ethnic group.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is flying a surgical team to Wau.
“The ICRC has received multiple requests to assist medical staff in Wau with patients wounded in the violence,” a spokesman said.
Five residents, all who asked not to be named, described members of the president’s Dinka ethnic group searching for members of the local Luo and Fertit groups. The head of the military is also Dinka.
“We are still inside hiding,” said one man by telephone, speaking from Wau neighbourhood Nazareth. “I have seen four dead bodies of my neighbours.”
“Armed militia are moving from house to house,” one resident said. “It is an ethnic crackdown.” Another said he had fled an attack that had killed many people, including his cousin.
South Sudan is awash with weapons after decades of conflict with neighbouring Sudan and local feuds over land.
In another part of Wau, a resident saw two bodies near a feeding centre and a couple killed beside the road as they tried to flee to a nearby civilian encampment protected by UN peacekeepers.
More than 200,000 people have taken refuge in such sites across the country after widespread ethnic killings, many by soldiers. Campaign groups have accused both sides of atrocities.
Two residents said soldiers blocked off the road leading to the Wau protected site.
“I and my two sisters tried to get a way to the UNMISS protection site, but we can’t because the road is blocked by government soldiers,” one woman said, using the acronym for the UN Mission in South Sudan.
“I saw one woman who was killed with her husband because they tried to run to UNMISS.”
Chol said the mutiny had broken out on Monday morning. “Four prison soldiers in Wau prison decided to mutiny and shot at their own colleagues killing two,” he said.
He said there was fighting in Wau state for the past three days but had no further details on Monday’s fighting, apart from it was taking place along ethnic lines.
“The type of the rebellion in Wau … it is more or less tribal,” he said.
The 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, which has a base in Wau, has not been able to stop the killing.
“We are aware of the situation in the town and we are looking into it,” UN spokesman Daniel Dickinson said.