JUBA , SOUTH SUDAN – Witnesses say at least 80 people were killed and more than 90 others were injured in violent clashes involving soldiers and civilians in Warrap state’s Tonj East County over the weekend as South Sudan troops began disarming civilians.
Executive Director for Tonj East County Makuei Mabior told South Sudan in Focus an argument erupted between a small group of youths and soldiers in 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 actually involved 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 South Sudan in Focus.
Casualties were heavy on both sides, said Mabior
“On the side of Gelweng youths, apart from those missing, we are getting 46 deaths, 93 wounded. The soldiers are 34,” Mabior told VOA.
Most civilians ran into the bush for safety, according to Mabior.
Major General Koang said soldiers have withdrawn from the area in an attempt to end the fighting.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.