Bor, South Sudan
Bor, South Sudan

NAIROBI - A United Nations official in South Sudan says at least 40 people were killed in an attack on civilians sheltering at a U.N. base in Jonglei state. The government has blamed U.N. peacekeepers for the violence.

The U.N. peacekeeping force, known as UNMISS, says an armed mob forced its way into the compound in Bor Thursday and opened fire at civilians taking refuge inside.

UNMISS says peacekeepers returned fire, repelling the attackers.

The head of office for the U.N. Humanitarian agency in South Sudan, Vincent Lelei, told VOA the mob was apparently demonstrating against the U.N. at the gates of the compound, before it turned violent.

Lelei said demonstrators used “powerful military equipment” to force their way in.

“Shooting started directly into unarmed civilians, mainly women and children who had taken shelter in there,” he said.

At a news conference Friday, South Sudan's information minister Michael Makuei Lueth claimed it was the U.N. who fired at the demonstrators first.

“Before they could arrive, the UNMISS force shot at them and as a result it provoked a situation that resulted in that unfortunate incident,” he said.

FILE - Civilians who fled recent fighting stack th
FILE - Civilians who fled recent fighting stack their belongings up outside the gate of the United Nations Mission compound in South Sudan (UNMISS), hoping to benefit from their protection, Unity State, South Sudan, Jan 12, 2014.

Tens of thousands of South Sudanese have sought shelter at U.N. bases across the country since violence broke out in December, following a political rift between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.

In the latest fighting, opposition forces this week took over the town of Bentiu, capital of oil-producing Unity State. The government says the military soon will retake control.

Lelei says more than 6,000 civilians have fled to a U.N. base in Bentiu in recent days, bringing the total number of people taking shelter at the base up to 14,000.

“The fear factor is driving people out of their homes into very very difficult sheltering conditions in the U.N. base," he said.

The U.S. State Department Thursday issued a statement condemning the recent violence, and has called on all sides involved in the conflict to adhere to a cessation of hostilities agreement signed in January. That agreement has been repeatedly violated, while peace talks in the Ethiopian capital have stalled.