Hundreds of people from the disputed Abyei region demonstrated Friday in South Sudan's capital, demanding authorities investigate an attack on an Abyei village that killed at least 15 people.
The demonstrators traveled in minibuses from Midan Rembo in Thong Piny neighborhood of Juba town to the UNMISS base near Juba international airport.
U.N. and local officials said armed Misseryia nomads carried out the attack Wednesday on the Dinka village of Kolom. But a prominent member of Sudan’s ruling council, military leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, blamed U.N. peacekeepers for the deaths, saying UNIFSA solders failed to protect the village.
A UNISFA spokesman said 15 villagers were killed in the attack, while Abyei's chief administrator put the death toll at more than 20 and said the fatalities included women and children.
Abyei resident Romano John, one of the protesters in Juba, condemned the incident and argued it should be considered a crime against humanity.
“And the perpetrators must be brought to justice. We demand that the Sudan[ese] and so-called oil police be redeployed outside Abyei,” John told VOA's South Sudan in Focus.
Protester Aluel Juliana said if UNISFA cannot protect citizens of Abyei, they should leave.
“We come with bleeding hearts, we come with bleeding souls, we come and beg the government of South Sudan: Tell UNISFA — if you have failed to protect the children of Agok, you must” leave, Juliana told South Sudan in Focus.
Geetha Pious, who heads the U.N. Mission in South Sudan office in Juba, received the petition on behalf of UNMISS chief David Shearer. “I am collecting your petition and I will pass it to the higher authorities,” said Pious.
Another demonstration took place simultaneously in Abyei town, where demonstrators presented a petition to UNISFA offices there.
UNIFSA spokesperson Daniel Adekera said he received the petition from a representative of the Ngok Dika community in Abyei town.
“The petition was not addressed to us, so the best we can do is to forward it” to U.N. officials in New York, he said. Adekera also UNISFA's condolences to the aggrieved families who lost loved ones.
Dagalo also called for an investigation into what he called “a barbaric act aimed at derailing the ongoing peace talks in Juba on Sudan.” The military leader is part of a Sudanese government delegation engaged in peace talks with Sudanese rebel groups in the South Sudanese capital.
Tutkew Gatluak, a mediator in the Sudan peace talks and a security adviser to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, said Sudan and South Sudan have agreed to form a committee to investigate the matter.
Under its mandate, UNISFA is tasked with protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, protecting Abyei from incursions by "unauthorized elements" and ensuring security.
UNISFA was deployed to the oil-producing Abyei region by the U.N. Security Council in 2011 after deadly clashes between South Sudan and Sudan displaced more than 100,000 people.
Carol Van Dam Falk contributed to this report.