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Q&A: Civilians under fire in South Sudan

South Sudan's violence could instigate a humanitarian crisis and widespread civilian casualties.

Last updated: 28 Dec 2013 10:13
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Hundreds have been killed and nearly 100,000 others displaced as a power struggle between President Salva Kir and his former deputy, Riak Machar, spark fears of a full out ethnic war [Reuters]

It has been more than a week since fighting began in the world's youngest country.

Hundreds of people have been killed and at least 100,000 others are displaced while a power struggle between President Salva Kir and former Vice President Riak Machar stirred concerns about a full out ethnic war between the Nuer and Dinka groups.

Even though South Sudan's capital, Juba, remains relatively peaceful, fighting continues in other parts of the country, including in Jonglei, an oil-rich area close to the Ethiopian border. Some estimates have put the number of deaths at over 1,000. 

The African Union has described the ongoing violence as having "the potential to undermine the viability of the new nation" and has demanded dialogue between the two opposing parties.

While the UN looks to forge a peace deal, tens of thousands of civilians continue to live in danger as tensions escalate. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that the UN aims to increase the number of peacekeepers to protect cvilians caught in the crosshairs.

Al Jazeera talks to Vincent Lelei, the Head of Office for the UN's Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), South Sudan about the country's humanitarian crisis.

Al Jazeera: The UN Security Council has expressed concern over the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the South Sudan. How serious is the situation at this point?

Lelei: The situation in South Sudan is deeply concerning. There are multiple crises in a number of key states resulting in significant humanitarian consequences and concerns regarding the protection of civilians. While the scale of humanitarian consequences in large parts of the country cannot yet be ascertained due to a lack of access, humanitarians in Juba and elsewhere such as Bor and Bentiu in the Jonglei and Unity states paint a troubling picture - a situation of desperation where civilians, including women and children are targeted, displaced and injured. 

For example, significant numbers of people, mainly women and children are leaving Juba to unknown destinations, though we're monitoring the situation closely.

The number of people seeking refuge in UN peacekeeping (UNMISS) bases, or moved to other places of relative safety continues to grow. To date, an estimated 81,000 people have been displaced, including some 46,000 sheltering in UN bases. We are also worried about those whose whereabouts are not known. These people are in urgent need of emergency food, shelter, water and sanitation including medical care. 

However, this number is considered to be an under-estimate as thousands are thought to have moved into the bush or villages. Limited access for humanitarians due to insecurity both within the towns affected by fighting as well as outside the towns has affected the level of humanitarian assistance provided so far as well as ascertaining reliable information on to the scale of the crisis.

Al Jazeera: Are civilians being targeted purposefully or just caught in the middle of fighting at this point?

Lelei: The people of South Sudan have been united for many decades in their fight for independence. That commitment was based on a desire for peace and development that is shared by all parts of South Sudanese society. Humanitarians must urge the political leaders to work towards bringing peace to the world’s newest nation. We are deeply concerned about the situation of all civilians affected by armed violence in Juba and elsewhere in the country regardless of whom they are and where they are from. In light of the continued and increasing reports of serious human rights violations, it is vital that all reported cases are documented and investigated in due course. There is a need to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable. All parties to the conflict must respect their obligations under national and international law and ensure that civilians are spared from the consequences of fighting and that civilians are allowed to freely seek safety and assistance.

Al Jazeera: We know of the attack at the Akobo UN base - there are two other bases in the country looking after a number of civilians as well. How vulnerable are the civilians outside the UN bases?

Lelei: Conditions for displaced people in Juba and elsewhere in the country are of great concern to us. This is why UNMISS has opened the gates to its bases in Juba and elsewhere for some 46,000 people to seek protection and access life-saving assistance. It is likely that this number will increase dramatically if the violence is not stopped. The UN and its partners are doing everything they can to reach out to those who are not in its bases and ensure that their lives are safe and that they receive assistance. We have also reached out to the government and political leaders in South Sudan urging them to ensure the protection of civilians according to international law. As soon as the security situation improves, humanitarians will scale up the response to ensure that all communities affected are assisted, based on the need and principles of impartiality and neutrality.

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa 

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Al Jazeera
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