JUBA — More than 40 people were killed and 60 others wounded in an attack in South Sudan's restive Jonglei state that officials have blamed on rebels loyal to David Yau Yau.
But Yau Yau denied that his forces were involved in the attack, in which houses in Twic East County were set ablaze, hundreds of head of cattle were stolen and women and children were abducted early on Sunday.
"They're not from our group," Yau Yau told VOA News in a phone interview.
"Our group remains where they are. Our attacks are not against the civilian population," he said, adding that the deadly assault was probably an intercommunal attack, which he said were common in Jonglei state.
Hussein Maar Nyuot, acting governor of Jonglei state, said 43 locals died in the attack, in which local leaders say rebels and Murle youth attacked Paker and Ajuong payams at around 7:00 am Sunday, randomly firing at local residents.
Twic East County Commissioner Dau Akoi Jurkuch said most of the victims were women, children and elderly men.
The attack may have jeopardized ongoing talks between Yau Yau's rebels, religious leaders, lawmakers and U.N. representatives, Maar said.
But Yau Yau said the talks have been under way for around three months and were making good progress. He hopes to begin negotiating with the government soon, he said, adding: "Everything is hopeful now."
An ethnic Murle who used to be a student of theology, Yau Yau as recently as June said that he is fighting for a separate state for ethnic minorities who are deprived of their rights in South Sudan, and dismissed as "a joke" an offer from the government in Juba to hold peace talks.
Jonglei state has been wracked by violence for months. Civilians, along with U.N. agencies and humanitarian aid groups, fled the town of Boma in Jonglei in May to escape fighting between government forces and Yau Yau's rebels.
In July, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that about 40,000 inhabitants had been displaced in Pibor county -- the heart of Yau Yau's insurrection -- and all six major population centers in Pibor County had been abandoned.
Thousands of residents of the state are thought to have fled to the South Sudanese capital or neighboring countries, OCHA said.
Maar said the government does not have adequate resources to implement the rule of law in Jonglei, and the state's poor road system makes it almost impossible for security forces to respond quickly to attacks, especially in remote areas.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) issued a statement condemning Sunday's attack and expressing sorrow for the lives lost and families left grieving.
The UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) helped to evacuate 31 seriously wounded civilians to Bor and Juba from the area where the attack took place, and is helping local officials to" check on the movement of the attackers," the statement said.