Juba, South Sudan | AFP | At least 16 civilians were killed in fighting Monday between government troops and rebels in South Sudan’s second-largest city Wau, the United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNMISS) said in a statement.
The violence stemmed from an ambush Sunday of government troops near the city, leading to clashes in the city the following day, UNMISS said.
“The Mission mounted two patrols into Wau on Monday and said it had observed the bodies of 16 civilians in a hospital. There were ten people who had been injured,” the statement said.
Wau is located in a region that has repeatedly changed hands between government troops and rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar since the country descended into civil war in 2013.
The city itself has remained under the control of forces loyal to Machar’s arch-enemy President Salva Kiir throughout.
UNMISS said troops, tanks and equipment from the SPLA national army had moved towards areas controlled by the rebels in the south-western part of Wau late last week.
At least 3,000 people — mostly women and children — sought shelter in a Catholic church, while another 84 had sought refuge at an UNMISS Protection of Civilians site.
Civilians who spoke to AFP described targeted killings in the city some 650 kilometres (404 miles) from the capital Juba.
“The (people) who came are reporting to us that there are SPLA soldiers in the residential areas,” said Moses Peter, a priest, who confirmed that up to 3,000 people were sheltering in his church.
“They are shooting and are targeting certain groups of people and they are even looting houses.”
– ‘Lying in blood’ –
Local resident Tibur Erynio, 41, said a tally of the dead from his neighbours stood at 18, most of them from minority ethnic groups the Jur and Balanda.
The civilians were “killed because they are suspected of supporting rebels,” said Erynio, adding that this was not true.
Erynio said shops and markets in the city’s southern half were closed and the government had told people to stay indoors.
“You can only see people are moving, running either to the church for protection” or to a UN peacekeeping compound, he said.
One local resident, who asked not to be named, told AFP he had found his brother “lying in blood after he was shot”, and had counted five other dead bodies.
Another, who gave her name as Mary Joseph said: “we saw three people lying dead in different places.”
The International Committee for the Red Cross said it was rushing surgical teams to the city to assist the wounded.
The military and rebels gave conflicting accounts of the violence.
Military spokesman Colonel Santo Domic Chol said the fighting started as government troops were trying to rout rebels from strongholds in the countryside.
Forces loyal to Machar took cover among civilians when the skirmishes reached Wau town on Monday, Domic said.
Four prison guards were killed in the fighting, Domic said, without elaborating.
A spokesman for the rebels William Gatjiath Deng said the fighting stemmed from an ambush laid by the rebels outside of Wau on Sunday that left 35 soldiers from a government-aligned militia dead.
The surviving pro-regime forces returned to Wau, where Deng said they killed 50 civilians in “house-to-house” raids.
Both accounts were impossible to verify.
Deng said the troops were from the same militia responsible for fighting last week in the southern town of Pajok that forced 6,000 people to flee across the border to Uganda.
South Sudan’s leaders fought for decades for independence, but once they got it in 2011, civil war erupted in 2013 out of a power struggle between Kiir and his former deputy Machar.
At least 1.7 million people have fled the country because of the war, and 1.9 million are internally displaced.
The war has also created a man-made famine, exacerbating a dire humanitarian crisis.