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Civilians trapped as wounded soldiers escape South Sudan's oil-rich warzone

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 10 Jan 2014 13:44 GMT
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A South Sudan army soldier holds his weapon in Bor, 180 km (108 miles) northwest from the capital Juba December 25, 2013. REUTERS/James Akena
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NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the last few weeks, 81 wounded soldiers have escaped fighting over Mayom in South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity State to receive surgery in Agok hospital – but not one civilian.

The town of Mayom, 80 km southeast of the hospital, has been devastated by fighting between government and rebel forces in recent days.

“We’ve been receiving gunshot victims here, but they are all military,” David Nash, head of mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in South Sudan, said in a telephone interview from Agok.

“We have not received any civilians and that worries me... If they are not getting out, then I am afraid they are not receiving assistance.”

MAIN BATTLEFRONTS

Three weeks of fighting, often along ethnic faultlines, has pitted President Salva Kiir's SPLA government forces against rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar and brought South Sudan, the world’s youngest state, close to civil war. At least 1,000 have been killed and 274,000 displaced since the conflict broke out on Dec. 15.

Unity State is one of the main battlefronts because of its valuable oil fields. Its strategically-important towns of Mayom and Bentiu were taken by rebels, who defected from the national army, last month.

This week, there has been fierce fighting as the government seeks to regain control of them.

Government ambulances carried the wounded soldiers from Mayom to MSF’s hospital in Agok, Nash said.

“This is a hospital and MSF doesn’t make any distinctions between anyone. Once they walk in here, if they are hurt, then they are called a patient,” he said.

Civilians are not so fortunate.

There are 375,000 people living in the two counties surrounding Mayom and Bentiu, according to the U.N. South Sudan humanitarian coordinator, Toby Lanzer, and “in both many are on the move”.

TRAUMATISED AND TIRED

Few are reaching safety.

To the west, there are 3,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Turalei, Warrap State, and to the north, another 1,500 are in Abyei, Nash said, after visiting the two sites. They are receiving aid from agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and GOAL.

“They were looking traumatised and very tired. It’s mainly women and children; some older men but not the young ones... They looked very worried,” he said, after visiting Turalei, 110 km west of Mayom, on Wednesday.

“This is a very small number considering the amount of fighting that seems to have gone on.”

He fears other people many have headed eastwards into yet more fighting.

WORSE BY THE DAY

Government forces are poised to retake Bentiu, 90 km east of Mayom. The town has emptied, with thousands walking southwards to find safety.

Some 8,000 people are sheltering in the U.N. military base in Bentiu, which it has tried to secure by building trenches, Lanzer said on Twitter.

“The situation remains extremely fluid with movements of people and  new IDPs  reported almost daily, and changing dynamics of whether a road or area is safe to travel or not,” Heather Blackwell, country director for the Danish Refugee Council, which is providing assistance in the U.N. base in Bentiu, said in an email.

It is a situation replicated in other parts of the country, with IDPs scattering to dozens of remote locations.

The United Nations estimates that 274,000 people have been displaced since the conflict began, with almost 60,000 hosted in U.N. bases and 42,800 crossing borders as refugees.

“Conditions for the South Sudanese fleeing hostilities in their country are getting worse by the day,” Valerie Amos said in a statement.

The latest death toll estimates vary. The International Crisis Group told the New York Times the number of dead was close to 10,000, while the U.N.’s peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous says it is “very substantially in excess of the figure of 1,000”.

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