JUBA AND WAU, SOUTH SUDAN - Relative calm has returned to Wau, South Sudan, after an outbreak of deadly violence which began Friday evening and continued through Monday morning, say local officials and residents.
It is unclear how many people were killed, but aid agencies and residents say thousands have fled to a United Nations camp, the University of Bahr el Ghazal campus, and church and non-governmental organization compounds.
Heavy shelling and sporadic gunshots could still be heard early Monday. Church leaders accused the army of killing civilians. A Sudan People's Liberation Army (or SPLA) military spokesman denied the allegations.
Violence broke out Friday in Wau when armed youth from a pastoralist community attacked another community, reportedly to avenge the murders of two of their colleagues two days earlier. Residents say the armed youth also clashed with government forces, who were perceived to be sympathetic to the pastoralists.
Residents say the armed youth withdrew early Saturday afternoon, and by Saturday evening government forces established control of Wau.
Armed men terrorized residents, looted houses and shops, and killed civilians during the rampage, according to eyewitnesses, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. Residents said the looting spree by unidentified armed groups came on the heels of heavy fighting between SPLA troops and various groups early Saturday.
Leon Arkangelo, head of the Red Cross in Wau, estimates at least 5,000 civilians fled to the International Red Cross compound in nearby Muqta. Tens of thousands of civilians are said to have left their homes during the fighting, taking shelter at the University of Bahr el Ghazal, Wau Catholic Church, St. Joseph's Catholic Church at Siqa Hadid, and at United Nations Mission in South Sudan camps.
Thousands reportedly left the town altogether, and are seeking refuge in Bagari and Ngo Halima.
While there's no official word on the number of people killed and wounded during the weekend violence, a medical source speaking on condition of anonymity said the dead and injured are in the hundreds.
A Wau resident, who also did not want to be identified, said he took his family to the International Red Cross compound during the fighting. He described the situation in Wau on Monday as relatively calm, but sporadic gunshots could still be heard in parts of the town. He said he saw government troops in uniform looting houses and shops after residents fled.
Another resident at the Red Cross compound in Wau, who also wished to remain anonymous, said she saw soldiers destroy and loot houses, as well as kill innocent civilians.
Catholic Church leaders presiding over a mass Sunday in Juba also said SPLA soldiers were involved in assassinating and looting civilians in the Wau attack.
Monsignor Roko Taban, the apostolic administrator of Malakal Catholic Diocese, asked the International Criminal Court to investigate and put on trial those responsible for killing civilians and destroying their property.
"Your brothers and sisters are dying in Wau since Friday, dying in big numbers, being slaughtered and being killed by the SPLA,” he said. “More than 100,000 people are in the bush. Is this the country we have chosen?"
The speech was broadcast live on Bakhita Radio, provoking South Sudanese security officials to try to shut down the station. Government officials asked Bakhita Radio to provide its legal documents of operation.
However, security operatives abandoned their decision to shut down the station after staff members told them to first contact the church administrators.
Santo Loku Pio, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Juba Catholic Archdiocese, accused government leaders who oppose change of causing the deadly violence.
Pio said South Sudanese citizens do not trust their leaders.
"Many of our people are dying because our leadership is one way,” he said. “Please, please be flexible. Accept change, accept reforms, change the way you do things, everything will be better. The way of violence is not good. It is unacceptable to destroy because you want certain ideas to go through."
Catholic Church leaders, who have been calling for peace and reconciliation among different ethnic communities for months, are now asking for help from international NGOs to care for the hundreds of displaced residents in Wau.
Tingo Peter, head of the SPLM-In Opposition peace delegation to Juba and the SPLM-IO proposed governor of Wau state, said the Saturday morning attacks on Wau were in direct response to repeated cease-fire violations by SPLA soldiers, armed militiamen and armed cattle herders against civilians over the past few months. He said those violations intensified over the past few days, which led to attacks by armed groups.
"There were some youth in the area and they tried to protect the civilians,” Peter said. “Their families were being violated, looted and killed so they have every right to defend them."
SPLA spokesman in Juba, Brigadier Lul Rurai Koang, said some of the attackers were motivated by "revenge."
"One group is reported to be tribal fighters,” he said. “They were angered after one of their sons was killed two days ago, a captain from the police. He was killed by unknown gunmen."
Koang said another armed group was made up of criminals who wanted to take advantage of the chaos.
He said any accusations that SPLA soldiers have been preying on unarmed civilians were unfounded.
"When the infiltrators attempted to enter Wau, some greedy civilians started immediately on a looting spree,” Koang said. “They were not SPLA forces. But we are not going to deny that as such, once we receive evidence showing that SPLA security personnel were involved in looting in Wau town, they will be investigated according to our rules and code of conduct."
Koang said he cannot "speculate" at this point about whether the attackers in Wau were linked to the same armed groups who on June 15 attacked and took over neighboring Raja, killing more than 50 people.