At least 200 civilians – including women and children – are reported to have been killed while trying to escape fighting between government forces and rebels in Malakal, a northern oil city in South Sudan.
South Sudan’s army spokesman told reporters on Tuesday that as many as 300 civilians were abandoning the town. Many were rushing to be loaded onto boats to save their lives by crossing the White Nile.
The boat carrying the civilians went down because it was allegedly overloaded. Almost all the passengers died in the incident, only two survivors are said to have been found – both of them crew members.
President Salva Kiir’s spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, described the situation as very unfortunate. He said the a condolence message will be issued to the public on Wednesday.
Malakal, the state capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state, was said to have been “recaptured” by rebel forces on Tuesday.
Brigadier-General Lul Ruai Koang, Machar’s military spokesman, said “I have just received confirmation from our field commander that the SPLM/SPLA forces under the direct command of Major-General Gathoth Gathkuoth have recaptured the strategic town of Malakal, the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state,”.
The rebels believe that the recapturing of Malakal will give them control of South Sudan’s oil, which has been identified as a key bargaining tool at the ongoing peace talks in Addis Ababa.
But Ruai has assured reporters that his comrades will ensure oil production continues in Upper Nile.
Meanwhile, a military source at the army headquarters in Juba is said to have denied the rebel’s claim as “untrue” and “mere propaganda”.
Government troops in South Sudan are said to have been advancing on Monday to the flash-point town of Bor.
Bor, situated about 200 kilometers north of Juba and capital of the restive Jonglei State, has already changed hands three times since fighting broke out in South Sudan one month ago.
According to humanitarian sources, about 1,000 people arrive by boat in Awerial daily to escape the fighting in Bor.
Grace Cahill, humanitarian spokesperson for Oxfam, told reporters the boats are not big enough to transport a huge number of civilians at once, at least 10 deaths will occur while crossing, she said.
“The crossing is very dangerous, taking anywhere between 7 and 12 hours – this is because of all the tributaries of the Nile which must be navigated,” she noted.
The UN has reported that about 400,000 civilians have fled their homes over the past month, and up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed in the fighting.
More than 78,000 South Sudanese have fled to neighboring nations since fighting began in mid-December, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday, Uganda is believed to be receiving the largest share of refugees. Observers say the dire humanitarian situation is expected to get worse.
Although representatives of South Sudan’s government and rebels have been meeting for talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, they are yet to settle on a cease-fire agreement.
PHOTO: Boats loading refugees to cross the Nile.