More than 9,000 people have fled the most recent violence in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, the United Nations has said, adding that some were forced to hide in swamps and bushes during attacks.
The bloodshed in the region has killed an unknown number of people while rape, murder and kidnapping of civilians have been reported as the conflict intensifies, the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA said on Wednesday.
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More than 9,100 people had been displaced since clashes between armed factions erupted in Upper Nile’s Fashoda County in mid-November, it said in a statement.
“According to local responders at least 75 percent of the newly displaced are women and children, with many children separated from their caregivers,” it added.
“The humanitarian community in South Sudan is appalled by the continuous violence that has a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary men, women and children,” OCHA humanitarian coordinator Peter Van der Auweraert said in a statement.
At least 20,000 people have fled the violence since it first erupted in August, including 3,000 over the border into neighbouring Sudan, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
Those unable to flee, such as the elderly and disabled, had sought refuge in bushes along the banks of the White Nile, UNHCR said.
The fighting has spread to the bordering states of Jonglei and Unity with grave fears for civilians trapped in the town of Kodok.
A UN protection camp in nearby Malakal has swollen with new arrivals. Opened 10 years ago to host 12,000 people, it currently shelters 37,000 residents.
Survivors of one attack told UNHCR that dozens were killed or wounded while others drowned in the river trying to escape.
“Their situation is desperate,” said UNHCR’s country representative in South Sudan, Arafat Jamal, who described witnessing “the aftermath of raw violence” in some villages that were raided.
“Civilians are under attack in this ruthless conflict; we must ensure their protection,” he said.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has publicly appealed for government forces based in Kodok to intervene and de-escalate the violence.
“Hostilities must cease immediately to reduce human suffering and prevent further loss of innocent lives,” Van der Auweraert also urged in his statement, calling on the government and local authorities to ensure safe and unimpeded access for humanitarian partners to all those in need.
At the close of a ruling party conference in the capital Juba on Tuesday, President Salva Kiir said he “cannot stop” the fighting in Upper Nile and called on all sides to embrace peace.
In a statement published on Wednesday, the president’s office said: “Despite the complexity, the president is determined to do whatever it takes to end this violence in Upper Nile and other regions of South Sudan.”
Last week, the UN convened a meeting with diplomats from the African Union and the international community to discuss the escalating crisis.