JUBA - Senior South Sudan government officials on Friday blamed United Nations peacekeepers for provoking a deadly attack on a U.N. compound in Bor by firing warning shots into the air to disperse a large group of armed civilians who had gathered outside the base.
“You don’t stop a moving mob with gunshots if you know that they are armed," government spokesman Michael Makuei said.
"In fact, it is this gunshot which provoked the situation," he said.
A precise casualty toll from the attack on the Bor base was not available as of Friday, but the U.N. said dozens of civilians are thought to have been killed and scores wounded in the violence.
Makuei said UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) should have stopped displaced people in the Bor compound from celebrating news of the capture of Unity state capital Bentiu early this week by rebel forces. Witnesses, including a health worker who lives inside the U.N. compound and one of the organizers of the protest outside the base, said the celebration was a trigger for the attack.
"UNMISS failed to control these internally displaced people so that they abide by and respect the ground rules of the camp. Not only that but they should also avoid provocative actions that may provoke others," Makuei said.
"In other words, anybody who celebrates successful operations being conducted by the rebels against the government... is a rebel, and we cannot continue to accommodate rebels inside UNMISS compounds and allow them to celebrate or do whatever they want," Makuei said.
Interior Minister Aleu Ayieny Aleu faulted what he said was the peacekeepers' lack of training, saying that by firing shots into the air, they lit the fuse under the attack in which one U.N. official said at least 40 people died.
"Trained soldiers or trained peacekeepers or trained law enforcement agencies -- once you know that fellow is armed, you don’t control by shooting in the air," Aleu said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin was more contrite, saying he regretted that civilians died in the attack. He also tried to assure the international community that the incident will be thoroughly investigated.
“The government of the Republic of South Sudan strongly condemns the incident that happened in the UNMISS camp. You must know that the citizens, whether they are the youth, whether they are IDPs -- these are citizens of the Republic of South Sudan and we would not encourage them to kill themselves," he said.
UNMISS says attack 'unprovoked'
UNMISS has said Thursday's events were an unprovoked assault launched by a large group of armed civilians who showed up at the gates of the compound in Bor "under the guise of peaceful demonstrators intending to present a petition to UNMISS."
When the group was refused entry to the compound, "the armed mob forced entry into the site and opened fire on the internally displaced persons sheltering inside the base," UNMISS said.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said in a statement released late Thursday the attackers used rocket-propelled grenades to breach the compound.
Once inside, they opened fire on the nearly 5,000 displaced persons living in the compound under U.N. protection, Power said. She condemned the attack as brazen, inhuman and an "outrage against the people of South Sudan."
UN peacekeepers sought help from SPLA
UNMISS spokesman Joseph Contreras said that around half an hour into the attack, the peacekeepers fired another round of shots into the air, and the armed mob dispersed.
UNMISS then sought help from a South Sudan army battalion stationed in the town, Contreras said.
"The commanding officer of the Indian battalion of the Mission in Jonglei met with the senior commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Bor, and that commander deployed SPLA troops to help secure our compound and cordon off the site from any further protests or attacks," he said.
International anti-poverty NGO Oxfam is re-assessing its security protocol following the attack on the camp, where the eight Oxfam staff are working on a water and sanitation project, Oxfam country director Jose Barahona said.
"Until yesterday, we thought we were relatively safe by staying and operating inside the UNMISS base and UNMISS bases in general. Since the incident yesterday, we cannot take that for granted,” he said.
In a statement released Thursday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said any attack that targets U.N. peacekeepers is unacceptable and "constitutes a war crime," and called on the government of South Sudan to take steps to ensure the safety of all UNMISS bases that are sheltering civilians.
A recent spate of violence in South Sudan has pushed up the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country from around 800,000 to more than 900,000, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report released Friday.
Around 80,000 of the IDPs are sheltering at U.N. bases around the country. Another 278,000 people have fled South Sudan for neighboring countries.
The majority of the displaced are women and children.