The number of South Sudanese facing severe hunger will swell if the ongoing conflict continues to disrupt livestock migration, farming, and trade routes, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer said Thursday.
Nearly 16 months of fighting in the country "continues to restrict civilians’ freedom of movement and thereby limits people’s ability to provide for themselves," Lanzer said in a statement.
"It is vital that the people in South Sudan are able to move freely to access their land, plant crops, tend to their livestock and trade without fear of violence," he said.
Lanzer said the three states that have been hardest hit by the conflict -- Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile -- were also the most impacted by restrictions to free and safe movement.
Lanzer was speaking days after a group of merchants went missing as they returned by boat to the Jonglei state capital, Bor, from Terekeka in Central Equatoria state.
Officials in Jonglei and Central Equatoria state said they believe the boat the merchants were traveling on with the goats and cattle they had purchased in Terekeka was attacked by cattle raiders near the village of Gemeza. The bodies of three of the merchants have been recovered from the Nile River. The victims had been shot, stabbed and some had their hands bound before they were dumped in the river, officials said.
Lanzer warned that failing to ensure security during South Sudan's brief planting season, which runs from March to June, could push up the number of food-insecure people in South Sudan from the already high number of 2.5 million.