JUBA (AFP) ― At least 20 people were killed and another 70 injured by gunmen posing as peaceful protestors who stormed a U.N. base in South Sudan, the U.S. ambassador to the world body said.
Samantha Power strongly condemned Thursday’s “brazen, inhuman attack on unarmed civilians” where 5,000 people are sheltering inside the base of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, in the war-ravaged town of Bor.
The attackers used rocket-propelled grenades to breach the compound then fired on those sheltering inside, in one of the most bitterly contested regions in the four-month-long conflict splitting the country.
Initial reports suggested that people inside the compound had been injured but Power said there had been many deaths.
“The United States strongly condemns the recent attacks by armed groups in South Sudan that have purposefully targeted civilians as well as U.N. Mission in South Sudan sites and personnel,” Power said.
She called the latest attack “particularly egregious,” noting that the heavily armed group of attackers used rocket-propelled grenades to breach the compound and fire on the internally displaced persons there.
“This latest outrage against the people of South Sudan is an affront to the international community and violates fundamental principles of civilian protection,” Power said, adding that UNMISS sites should be considered “inviolable.”
The United States, she said, will collaborate with its allies to determine who was responsible for the “horrific attack” and bring its perpetrators to justice.
Power also urged countries that have committed additional forces to UNMISS to speed up their deployment.
“The people of South Sudan deserve the opportunity to begin rebuilding their country, and to develop the national and local institutions they need to put South Sudan back on a path toward stability and democracy,” she added.
Earlier, the attack was condemned by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.
His spokesman Stephane Dujarric said it was a “serious escalation” in the crisis, ripping apart the world’s youngest country.
“The secretary-general reminds all parties that any attack on United Nations Peacekeepers is unacceptable and constitutes a war crime,” he added.
UNMISS said in a statement that “the armed mob forced entry into the site and opened fire on the internally displaced persons sheltering inside the base”.
Its forces returned fire -- first firing warning shots and then taking part in a ferocious gun battle -- before the fighters retreated, it added.
The civilians had fled into the base weeks ago amid brutal ethnic massacres in the world‘s newest nation.
Information Minister Michael Makuei said that a “huge number” of gunmen had come seeking revenge for the rebel capture of the oil town of Bentiu two days ago hoping to kill the trapped civilians, many of them children.
The conflict in South Sudan has left thousands dead and forced around a million people to flee their homes since fighting broke out on December 15 in the capital Juba before spreading to other states in the oil-rich nation.
Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, has swapped hands several times during the conflict.
The latest clashes in Bor echo an attack by gunmen in December on a U.N. base in Akobo, also in Jonglei, killing at least 11 civilians and two Indian U.N. peacekeepers.
More than 67,000 civilians across the country are sheltering inside U.N. bases for protection from ethnic attacks, with heavy fighting ongoing as the rebels say they are targeting key oil fields.
Information Minister Makuei insisted all oil fields were under government control, but that production had stalled in Unity ― a key oil zone ― as facilities were damaged in fighting.
U.N. peacekeepers reported dozens of corpses littering the streets of Bentiu, the state capital of Unity, which rebels had previously seized in December at the beginning of the conflict.
The fighting is between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and mutinous troops who have sided with his former vice president Machar, whom Kiir sacked in 2013.
The conflict has taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir’s Dinka tribe against militia forces from Machar’s Nuer.
Ban has warned that more than one million people are at risk of famine in the troubled country.
More than 3.7 million people are in dire need of food aid, many of them being forced to eat “famine foods” such as grasses and leaves, U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said Thursday.
“Worse is yet to come,” said UNICEF chief in South Sudan Jonathan Veitch in a statement.