The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said Tuesday at least five more aid workers have been killed in Maban County in Upper Nile state, and accused a militia group of targeting and killing civilians based on their ethnicity.
UNMISS says two aid workers were murdered in Bunj town, three died in an ambush as they were returning to the town, and one other is missing, presumed dead.
The killings come a day after a local worker for Norwegian People's Aid (NPD) was killed, reportedly by a militia group that calls itself the Mabanese Defense Forces.
The same militia group is suspected of killing the other aid workers, too. It reportedly began targeting Nuer civilians after it suffered casualties in clashes with Nuer soldiers who had defected from the SPLA, UNMISS said.
Aid workers seek shelter
Dozens of aid workers have taken refuge inside the main compound of the Maban County office of the U.N. refugee agency, and a unit of peacekeepers was dispatched from the UNMISS base in the Upper Nile town of Melut to protect U.N. staff, aid workers and civilians in and around Bunj, UNMISS said.
According to UNMISS, officials from the SPLA and the government of Upper Nile state said the army has also sent reinforcements to Bunj to "rein in the militia."
UNMISS and the UNHCR said the attacks on unarmed aid workers will adversely and dramatically impact humanitarian operations in Maban County, where more than 100,000 refugees from Sudan are sheltering. Their number has been swelled by thousands of locals fleeing the violence in Bunj.
"We were about to distribute food on Monday when the situation happened, forcing us to suspend,” UNHCR external relations officer for South Sudan, Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, said.
Some refugees only received two weeks of food aid when the last delivery was made and "are almost running out of food," she said.
“If the situation continues to deteriorate, we will not be able to provide the food to the refugees that they are expecting and, on top of it, those who are newly displaced people from Bunj," Lejeune-Kaba said.
Aid workers harassed
The militia accused of killing the aid workers has set up roadblocks and is harassing aid workers
“It is having a very negative impact on humanitarian operations," Lejeune-Kaba said.
There are around 800 aid workers, 127,000 refugees from Sudan and an undetermined number of civilians who have fled the fighting in Bunj, in the area, Lejeune-Kaba said.
Nyakouth Yassin, the acting commissioner for Maban County, said the situation in Bunj was under control on Tuesday.
“I can assure you that the area is calm and residents are coming back home," he said, before reports came in of the new slayings.
In spite of the conflict that has raked other parts of South Sudan since December, including Upper Nile State, Bunj has remained relatively peaceful until now.
Karin Zeitvogel reported from Washington, D.C.