At least 81 people have been killed in the South Sudan region of Warrap State following heavy fighting between armed civilians and government forces carrying out a disarmament exercise, the military’s spokesman said on Tuesday.
Lul Ruai Koang told Reuters the two-day clashes erupted over the weekend after some armed youths in the Greater Tonj area started engaging the security forces.
It was not immediately clear what sparked the fight, he said, adding that an investigation has been started.
“Among the dead are 55 members of the security forces and 26 civilians. Another 31 servicemen were also wounded,” Koang said, adding that the numbers could rise.
The wounded security personnel were flown to the military hospital in the capital Juba for treatment, he said, adding that calm had returned to the area as authorities restored order.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan reported that "the violence was sparked by a disagreement over a disarmament exercise being conducted in the area."
"During the fighting, the local market in Romich was reportedly looted and some shops were burned to the ground," Dujarric said. "Many women and children fled in fear of their lives."
The UN spokesman said a UN peacekeeping patrol is en route to the area to assess the security situation.
The UN peacekeeping mission is urging all those involved in the violence "to lay down their weapons and to help restore calm for the sake of their communities," Dujarric said.
He said the mission is engaging political and community leaders and will support local reconciliation and peace-building efforts to prevent further conflict.
There were high hopes that South Sudan would have peace and stability after gaining its long-fought independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011. But the world´s youngest nation slid into ethnic violence in December 2013, when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, started battling those loyal to Riek Machar, his former vice president who belongs to the Nuer people.
Numerous attempts at peace failed, including a deal that saw Machar return as vice president in 2016 - only to flee the country months later amid fresh fighting. The civil war has killed nearly 400,000 people and displaced millions.
Intense international pressure followed the most recent peace deal in 2018, and on Feb. 22 a coalition government led by Kiir, with Machar as his deputy, was formed. But peace still remains elusive.