Dozens of people are feared dead after fighting broke out Wednesday between government forces and an unknown armed group in Raja town of the newly created Lol state. A church leader said more than four hundred civilians have fled to the local Catholic church compound in Raja. Sources in Raja said State Governor Rizik Zachariah Hassan and other senior state officials have fled the area.
Eyewitnesses in Wau said the armed group attacked Raja military base, a National Security Service office near Raja market, and the Governor’s house, killing several soldiers. Most of the other soldiers fled the town.
The early morning fighting forced scores of people to flee into the bush, while others sought refuge at Wau’s Catholic Church Compound, according to witnesses.
Raja Mayor Marodama James Benjamin was among those who fled the town.
“The town is empty and I am moving with many civilians who are fleeing. The town is destroyed. The market, including the bank, is destroyed.”
Benjamin said the situation remains tense. He believes many people have been killed but could not provide a casualty estimate.
SPLA spokesman Brigadier Lul Ruai downplayed the severity of the death toll, saying Wednesday's fighting is nothing more than attacks being carried out by local criminals and bandits.
“These are people who took advantage of the problems that the country is going through. They have decided to take up arms and use the security vacuum to loot and rob. The initial reports we have received say they have already started looting in the morning when they entered,” he said.
Ruai said his forces are working with forces loyal to First Vice President Riek Machar to defeat the attackers. He said it’s just a matter of time before they gain full control of Raja again.
“As peace partners, the top SPLA-IO military leadership agreed to fight alongside SPLA forces against anti-peace elements. At this stage the SPLA would like to assure the people of South Sudan that it has the ability and capability to defeat armed criminals and bandits who are against the implementation of the peace agreement.”
William Ezekiel, undersecretary of the National Committee for Information and Public Relations, denied the SPLA-IO forces are fighting alongside government army forces.
“Given our forces are in their cantonment areas and by virtue of the agreement we are not supposed to go and help any side. We are just confined to our places of cantonment,” he said.
Ezekiel said the SPLM-IO is still gathering information on what is happening in Raja.
“Of course it has been blamed on unknown gunmen. And this issue of unknown gunmen is a new terminology in South Sudan. Every incident has been blamed on unknown gunmen attacking even here inside Juba. Of course it the government to verify this, not we.”
Both Ruai and Ezekiel said the attacks will not hinder full implementation of the August peace agreement signed by President Salva Kiir, and First Vice President and former rebel leader Riek Machar.