Officials in Jonglei and Central Equatoria states said Thursday they have begun recovering the bodies of a group of South Sudanese merchants who went missing last month while traveling on the River Nile between Bor and Terekeka.
Relatives said they have not heard from them since March 28 when they left Terekeka by boat to return to Bor with several head of livestock that they had bought.
Bor County Commissioner Mamer Ruuk said the body of one of the victims was fished from the Nile in Bor on Wednesday. His hands were tied and he had been shot several times. Ruuk identified him as Bor county resident Chol Makuei.
The body of another victim identified as Malek Deel Maluo was found later Wednesday in the river near Pariak. Deel had been stabbed and shot before his body was dumped in the river, Ruuk said.
Bodies floating in the Nile
Ruuk says officials believe the group was ambushed somewhere between Terekeka and the nearby village of Gemeza. The boat and the livestock they had bought in Terekeka are still missing.
"The boat was attacked and all the passengers were killed, and animals were taken away -- both goats and cows,” he said.
Residents of Bor County said they saw eight bodies floating in the river but it was unclear how many people were on the boat. Ruuk said one of the victims was a woman from Central Equatoria. He said he name was Keji.
Terekeka County Commissioner Jacob Gore Samuel said he believes the boat was attacked near the village of Gemeza. He said the Gemeza boma's chiefs and sub-chiefs have been arrested and are being questioned by the authorities.
Questioning suspects in Gemeza
Samuel said when he received word of the disappearances he sent security officers to investigate. He said they reported that herders in a cattle camp near the river had carried out the attack.
Samuel said police and army forces will be sent to the area where the alleged ambush happened, to try apprehend the suspects.
Ruuk called on local community leaders to work together to prevent tensions flaring over the apparent murders of the traders. Bor Mayor Nhial Majak called for measures to ensure the safety of travelers.
Aid agencies and South Sudanese have complained of rising insecurity on rivers and roads in South Sudan, especially since the country plunged into conflict in December 2013.
U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer said Thursday the ongoing fighting has disrupted trading routes, especially in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states, which have been hardest hit by the 14-month-old conflict. Ensuring the safety of South Sudanese and international aid agency personnel is vital to preventing an even more severe food crisis in the country, where more than 2.5 million people are already food insecure, Lanzer said.