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Thousands Flee Escalating Conflict in S. Sudan's Unity State

Displaced South Sudanese wait on Saturday, March 21, 2015, in Ganyiel, Unity state for sacks of food provided by the World Food Program (WFP) to be distributed.

The U.N. human rights office says civilians are bearing the brunt of renewed fighting this month in South Sudan’s strategic, oil-rich Unity State. The agency says thousands of people have been fleeing to escape attacks by government and opposition forces.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says it is alarmed by escalating violence involving government and opposition forces in Unity state.

Since fighting erupted at the end of April, the agency says about 2,200 civilians have sought refuge and protection at the U.N. Mission in South Sudan in the state capital, Bentiu. It says many others have fled into the bush near villages south of Nhialdiu, Koch and Leer.

U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville says about a quarter of the new arrivals are children under five and two-thirds of them are women and girls. He says there are alarming reports of attacks, abductions and sexual violence by armed men around the U.N. site in Bentiu.

“At least 28 villages have been attacked and civilians killed and maimed,” said Colville. "Others have been abducted and there has also been conflict-related sexual violence and looting of property. All the villages attacked have been burned and cattle and other properties have been looted.”

Colville says people who fled the area told aid workers that those committing these atrocities are soldiers from the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army or SPLA and armed youth.

“Mobilized youth are reportedly wearing civilian clothes, but are armed with AK-47s; whereas the SPLA soldiers are armed with rocket-propelled grenades, tanks, and mounted pickups in addition to other weapons,” said Colville.

Members of the SPLA, which is South Sudan's army, are fighting for both sides in the conflict,

United Nations and other aid agencies pulled out of northern Unity State over the weekend because of the fighting, leaving an estimated 300,000 civilians without essential aid.

The 17-month long war between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar has left the world’s newest country in chaos, with more than one million people either displaced within South Sudan or as refugees in neighboring countries.

The rainy season is not far off. U.N. agencies are urging the warring factions to stop or ease back on the fighting, so people can plant their crops and avoid hunger later this year.

In the meantime, the U.N. warns that attacks on civilians and infrastructure violate international humanitarian law and human rights laws. It says alleged crimes must be investigated.