JUBA (AFP) ― At least 200 civilians including women and children drowned in a ferry accident while fleeing heavy fighting between government forces and rebels in Malakal, a northern oil city in South Sudan, the army said Tuesday.
Dozens of people who had sought refuge in the U.N. camp in the city were also injured in the fierce clashes that gripped the city Tuesday, the U.N. said.
Army spokesman Philip Aguer said the ferry disaster occurred when the overloaded boat, packed with women and children, capsized in the White Nile river.
“The reports we have are of between 200 to 300 people, including women and children. The boat was overloaded,” he said. “They all drowned. They were fleeing the fighting that broke out again in Malakal.”
Thousands of people had sought refuge in Malakal since the conflict broke out about a month ago between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.
But the battle for Malakal, the main town in Upper Nile state, is now turning into one of the most bitter in the conflict.
The U.N. mission in South Sudan had reported “heavy fighting” which started near the U.N. compound in the city that now houses 20,000 people fleeing the conflict, spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The U.N. spokesman said the two sides were “apparently using heavy machine guns and tanks.”
“Stray bullets are reported to have fallen inside the U.N. base wounding internally displaced people that sought shelter there,” and dozens of people were being treated in the camp hospital, he said.
The number of displaced who have fled to the Malakal camp has doubled in a few days, Nesirky said, adding that there are now 65,000 people in camps across South Sudan.
There are 1,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 110 police protecting civilians at the base, he said.
Aguer said the boat capsize happened on Tuesday, although local media reported that it occurred overnight Sunday.
The disaster is one of the worst single incidents to have been reported from the war-torn country since clashes began a month ago.
According to the United Nations, about 400,000 civilians have fled their homes over the past month, many of them to escape a wave of ethnic violence between members of Kiir‘s Dinka people -- the country’s largest group -- and Machar’s Nuer community.
Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed in the fighting, aid sources and analysts say.
The army spokesman meanwhile reported that battles were raging in several areas of the country, signaling that the government’s recapture of Bentiu, another key oil city in the north which fell last week, had failed to deal a knock-out blow to the rebels.
Rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Kong, speaking in neighbouring Ethiopia, boasted that the insurgents had “recaptured Malakal,” but there was no confirmation from the army.
More than 78,000 South Sudanese have fled to neighbouring nations since fighting began in mid-December, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday, the majority of them crowded into camps in Uganda.
The army reported heavy fighting south of Bor, the capital of restive Jonglei state, as the government sought to retake the town from rebels.
“We are marching on Bor, there was very heavy fighting late on Monday,”
However, he rejected rebel claims to have captured the river port of Mongalla, situated between Bor and the capital Juba.
“We are north of Mongalla, we remain in full control there,” Aguer said, while confirming more clashes -- likely to have involved army defectors -- around the town of Rajaf south of Juba.
The East African regional bloc IGAD has been brokering peace talks in neighbouring Ethiopia, and the negotiations resumed on Tuesday -- although with still little sign that a ceasefire agreement was forthcoming.
“I am suspicious of the government‘s intention as an institution because we are dealing with a tyranny,” said rebel delegate Mabior Garang.
U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay has expressed grave concern over the severe human rights violations taking place daily in South Sudan, amid reports of ethnic massacres, extra-judicial killings and the looting of aid agency property by both sides in the conflict.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, won independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.