Thousands flee as town destroyed in South Sudan


Two thousand people were forced to flee to a UN base after a battle between South Sudanese soldiers and the guards of a former rebel commander laid waste to a small town, the United Nations and witnesses said yesterday.

South Sudan won independence from Sudan in 2011 but the government has been struggling to assert control over an impoverished country the size of France that is full of weapons after decades of civil war with the north.

The latest fighting took place on Sunday in the small town of Pibor in the eastern state of Jonglei, between soldiers and bodyguards of former rebel commander James Kuberin, witnesses said.

Kuberin used to be a commander of a group led by David Yau Yau, one of several militias fighting the government of the new African republic, but he defected to the army in December.

Witnesses said Kuberin went to Pibor’s market to get a haircut and was told by an army patrol not to walk around with armed guards.

Witness Peter Gazulu said one of the soldiers had a hand grenade. “Somebody tried to take it and they wrestled with it and it exploded. The guy died. Then the other men opened fire on the bodyguards and they escaped,” he said by telephone.

“The army fired all over the place and burned half of Pibor town, particularly in the south. They were firing at civilians,” he said. “In a house the father of my friend was burned alive. The body is still there.”

Several people had been injured, he said.

Flight to UN base

About 2,000 people fled the town, mainly made up of thatched houses, to seek protection at a UN peace-keeping base, UN spokesman Kouider Zerrouk said.

Army spokesman Philip Aguer said one soldier had been killed in the battle, and that Kuberin had fled with his guards afterwards. He declined to say whether the army had fired on unarmed civilians.

Medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières, one of few charities operating in Jonglei, said it had treated four people for gunshot wounds.

South Sudan’s civil war with Sudan ended with a 2005 peace deal that led to secession. Rebel and inter-ethnic violence is hindering government plans to explore a vast oil concession block with the help of French firm Total. – (Reuters)