NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The killing of six aid workers in South Sudan this week on ethnic grounds, amid sputtering peace talks between the government and rebels, is damaging efforts to prevent a famine, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan said.
Condemning the killings as “heinous crimes”, UNMISS blamed them on a militia known as the Mabanese Defence Forces in Upper Nile State’s Maban County, which has been attacking Nuer civilians after clashes with deserting soldiers.
“Elements of this militia have been moving around the town, approaching offices of humanitarian organisations and asking if they have any Nuer employees,” UNMISS said on Monday.
“Two of the victims were murdered in Bunj Town, a third aid worker is reported as missing but presumed dead,” UNMISS said on Tuesday. “Another three died in an ambush as they were attempting to return to the town.”
Another humanitarian, who worked for Norwegian People’s Aid, was killed in Bunj on Monday.
Famine is predicted to hit South Sudan in the coming months, with four million people - more than a third of the population - facing emergency levels of food insecurity.
Conflict between the government and rebels, which broke out in December, has driven more than 1.5 million people from their homes. Aid agencies are struggling to help them without a ceasefire or sufficient funds.
The most senior U.N. official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said the Bunj attacks were “jeopardizing the lives of tens of thousands of men, women and children who count on aid organisations for their survival.”
Dozens of aid workers have taken refugee inside the U.N. refugee agency’s compound, UNMISS said.
“These ethnically targeted attacks on unarmed aid workers will have a very drastic and adverse impact on the operations of humanitarian partners,” UNMISS added.
The medical charity Medair said the violence was hindering its efforts to provide medical care and clean drinking water to thousands of people.
Food distributions in Maban refugee camp were cancelled as a result of the killings, according to media reports.
Conflict in the world’s youngest nation, which became independent in 2011, pits the Dinka ethnic majority of President Salva Kiir against the Nuer group of sacked Vice President Riek Machar.
Many of the soldiers who have defected from the national army are Nuer.
UNMISS has sent four armoured personnel carriers from the Upper Nile State town of Melut to protect aid workers and civilians.
A new round of talks between the two sides began on Monday, but the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional grouping brokering negotiations in Ethiopia, said Machar's side failed to turn up for the talks on Tuesday.
IGAD has set a deadline of August 10 to agree on a transitional government.