JUBA - A top United Nations official has condemned the treatment of aid workers in South Sudan, saying violence and harassment is preventing help from reaching an estimated seven million people in need.
Mark Lowcock, the U.N. undersecretary–general for humanitarian affairs, said four aid workers have been killed and 10 others abducted in the last two months alone. His numbers did not appear to include aid workers reportedly kidnapped near the eastern town of Yangiri.
Lowcock, who visited South Sudan this week, said both the government and the armed opposition have done too little to halt violence and stop their forces from obstructing aid workers from reaching their intended destinations.
“What we need is rapid, safe and unhindered access to all people in need," he said.
He said officials in Juba told him that they want humanitarian agencies to have "unimpeded access" to those in need.
"Unfortunately, that is not what prevails at the moment," he said. "The aid agencies are subjected to harassment, extortions, and looting, kidnapping, killings and other blockage all over the country and those things have a direct effect reducing our ability to help people who need humanitarian assistance."
World Vision convoy attacked
An official in Tambura state told VOA's South Sudan in Focus that on Monday, armed men ambushed a convoy carrying aid workers from U.S.-based World Vision near Yangiri.
Information Minister Anikumbo Matthew Eme said the attackers abducted everyone in the convoy but that four aid workers escaped and made their way to the town of Yambio. It was not clear how many people remained captive.
Eme says the armed men are believed to be loyal to rebel SPLA-IO forces operating in the area. The SPLA-IO has denied carrying out abductions in the past.
South Sudan has been mired in conflict between government and opposition forces since December 2013.
Fighting has displaced nearly 4.3 million people across the country, with another 2.5 million fleeing to the neighboring countries.
Lowcock visited a U.N. Protection of Civilians site in Yei River State this week to see firsthand how the conflict is affecting ordinary people, especially women and children. He says all the IDPs he met told him they want South Sudan’s leaders to immediately stop the fighting.
"When you ask them what they want, the first thing they say where ever they are is that they want peace. So ending the violence is the first and single most important thing that is needed to alleviate the human suffering in this country," he said.
Lowcock welcomes the recent announcement by the United States government to review their assistance programs to South Sudan to ensure that the support does not indirectly fuel the conflict.
The U.N. will continue to provide assistance to those suffering in South Sudan, says Lowcock, but the warring parties must stop harassing aid workers.
“The conflict in South Sudan as you know is now in its fifth year and the suffering of the ordinary people is unimaginable. The peace process so far has produced nothing, the cessation of hostilities is a fiction, the economy has collapsed, belligerents use scorched-earth tactics, murder and rape as weapons of war. All these are gross violations of humanitarian laws.
"Seven million people now need humanitarian assistance and things are really getting worse.”