JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN / NEW YORK – More than 70 people were killed and dozens injured in clashes involving soldiers and civilians in South Sudan’s Warrap state over the weekend, according to local and U.N. officials.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Tuesday that the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) received the casualty reports from authorities in Tonj East County.
“The violence was sparked by a disagreement over a disarmament exercise being conducted in the area,” he said. “During the fighting, the local market in [the town of] Romic was reportedly looted and some shops were burned to the ground. Many women and children fled in fear of their lives.”
Dujarric said U.N. peacekeeping was on its way to the area to assess the security situation.
The executive director for Tonj East County, Makuei Mabior, told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus that an argument erupted between a small group of youths and soldiers in the Romic market, after a soldier ordered a young man to remove a red piece of cloth from his head, a cloth commonly worn by cattle camp youth.
“A small fight started. Bystanders rushed in and convinced them to stop and take the youth to the police but soon after that the soldiers cocked their guns and started shooting, killing the youth and other civilians in the market,” Mabior told VOA.
South Sudan Army spokesman Major General Lul Ruai Koang disputed that claim, saying the fighting was triggered by armed youths who attacked a police post in an attempt to free their detained relatives.
“On the night of August 8th, these armed civilians commonly known as Gelweng mobilized themselves in large numbers and in the morning attacked our defensive position at Romic, so that was the start of the fighting,” Koang told the program.
Casualties were heavy on both sides, Mabior said.
“On the side of Gelweng youths, apart from those missing, we are getting 46 deaths, 93 wounded. The soldiers are 34,” Mabior told VOA.
Major General Koang said soldiers have withdrawn from the area to end the fighting.
“To minimize further escalation our forces had to disengage, and they have pulled back to a place called Ngab-Agok,” Koang told VOA.
Some local community leaders including Francis Aguek are calling on President Salva Kiir to punish “two generals who are carrying out the operation.”
Last week, the South Sudan National Network on Small Arms criticized the government’s handling of the disarmament campaign, saying it includes no plan to prevent clashes between armed youths and soldiers.
VOA’s Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.