NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Two separate attacks by armed men on residential compounds of the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the volatile South Sudanese town of Malakal forced it to pull out on Friday.
There has been fighting in Malakal, the capital of the nation’s second biggest oil state, all week as rebels sought to capture it from government forces. Thousands of residents have fled either into the overcrowded United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base or the bush.
South Sudan is experiencing its worst crisis since independence two years ago, with 552,000 displaced and thousands killed since fighting between government and rebel forces broke out on Dec. 15.
Two different MSF compounds were attacked on Thursday, one in the morning and the second at 6pm, MSF’s head of mission Raphael Gorgeu said in a telephone interview.
“Our team was threatened by armed elements,” said Gorgeu. “They actually looted part of the compound taking some equipment and threatening the team with guns.”
MSF staff have withdrawn from the hospital and sought refuge in the U.N. military base, along with some 20,000 displaced civilians.
After widespread attacks and looting in the town on Thursday, the hospital in Malakal received more than 80 wounded, as well as large numbers of people gathering with their belongings in search of refuge.
“We have ended up in a situation where we just can’t work anymore… We have no other choice but to suspend our operation for the time being in Malakal hospital,” said Gorgeu.
The charity had been providing general medical care for thousands, as well as surgery and treatment for the killer parasitic disease kala azar, which is fatal in almost 100 percent of cases if untreated.
Gorgeu said he could hear shooting in the background when he was speaking on the phone to his team in the UNMISS base on Friday morning.
PUSHED INTO A CORNER
MSF prides itself on its independence and neutrality, clearly distinguishing itself from political and military institutions like UNMISS.
“This is normally an option we never take,” said Gorgeu. “But the security situation in Malakal pushed us into a corner where we had no other option than to look for protection in UNMISS compound.”
MSF was also forced to pull out of Bentiu, in neighbouring oil-rich Unity State, last week as government forced recaptured it from rebels. Its compound in Bentiu has also been looted.
On Thursday, clashes were reported outside Bentiu, though the security situation in the town remained calm, the U.N. reported in its latest update. An airlift operation to bring in relief supplies has started and the number of people sheltering in the U.N. base dropped to 5,300 on Jan. 16, the lowest since December.
There are no flights in or out of Malakal because of the ongoing violence.