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Ethnic Clashes Hit Southern Sudan

More than 170 people were killed in ethnic clashes in southern Sudan, this week - the latest round of the back and forth violence plaguing Jonglei state. United Nations peacekeepers are investigating the incident and an U.N. official says the mission is considering boosting its forces in the area.

At least 12 villages were burned down and thousands of people were displaced by the violence. The incident is only the latest in a series of violent ethnic confrontations in the area.

Attack was response to earlier Murle raids

The attack appeared to be in retaliation for a raid by the Nuer, last month, on Murle villages in Pibor Country that killed between 450 and 750 people. That attack was a response to earlier cattle raids by the Murle. A delegation of southern leaders who come from the area attempted to calm the tensions between the groups, earlier this month, but apparently without success.

Attacks by one group on another, generally to steal cattle, have long been common in the region. But the coordinator for Southern Sudan with the U.N. Mission in Sudan, David Gressly, says the latest attacks are more troubling.

"I want to highlight that what we've seen recently, where we have seen attacks on civilian settlements, not just cattle raiding against cattle camps and so forth, is a new dimension which I find worrisome and one that needs to be de-escalated relatively rapidly before we see a further deterioration in the situation there," said Gressly.

The area was one of the worst-affected by the 20-year north-south civil war that ended in 2005 and remains full of guns - a factor that increases the chances that raids could escalate.

Ethnic clashes have also broken out between other groups. At least 40 people were killed, early this month, when members of the Murle and Bor ethnic groups fought near Bor town. The United Nations says some 187,000 people were displaced by ethnic violence in southern Sudan in 2008 and that figure could be much higher this year.

UN delegation visiting area

Delegations from the U.N. peacekeeping mission are visiting the area, evaluating the humanitarian and security situation. Gressly says the force is considering options for expanding its deployment in Jonglei state.

The recent violence is a reminder of the challenges that may arise in holding national elections, scheduled for 2010, and a referendum on southern secession, the following year.

The attacks are also a reminder of the difficulties that would face an independent southern state. The semi-autonomous region's institutions are young and fragile. Although most of the south has been united in opposition to the ruling National Congress Party in the north, numerous ethnic divisions remain in the south - divisions that independence could very well aggravate.