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Source: Radio Tamazuj

The South Sudanese national army (SPLA) attacked Nhialdiu area in Unity State on Tuesday during an ongoing food distribution, after allegedly making complaints that food aid to civilians in rebel-held areas in the state was being diverted to rebel soldiers.

Fighting erupted in the area of Nhialdiu, a town under SPLM-IO control, on Tuesday morning, according to multiple sources, resulting in heavy casualties and forcing the UN to halt an operation to hand out food to tens of thousands of people.

UN sources in Bentiu confirmed that there was ‘shelling’ in Guit and Nhialdiu, but a source within the opposition-held area itself reported heavy ground clashes as well. Still other sources confirmed a high toll of wounded.

This comes after the government accused civilians in the opposition area of taking food aid to the rebels, according to sources in Bentiu.

Banyany Wang, the county information secretary in the opposition-held part of Rubkona County said, “There was an attack yesterday the 15th, which was the day of the UN distribution in Nhialdiu town.”

He stated that 37,600 people were set to receive food aid from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Nhialdiu on the day that the attack occurred.

“At the start of the distribution at 6:00 a.m. there was an attack by the government army at the place of the distribution, and there were casualties,” he said.

More than 30 civilians were killed and about 50 others wounded in the attack, he stated. The wounded have been gathered into one place, but there is no professional medical treatment for them.

“That happened yesterday at the place of the distribution,” said the information secretary.

WFP confirmed that that a food distribution for more than 37,000 people was halted, but declined to go into specifics, referring only to “fighting around Nhialdiu.” 

An official of the agency also stressed that aid workers themselves were not targeted.

“There has been fighting around Nhialdu, and WFP on Tuesday evacuated a rapid response team that was in the town at the time. Our team had been in Nhialdiu for 10 days, and we have no reason to believe that they were the target of the attack,” she said.

According to the opposition, 11 UN personnel were evacuated by helicopter on the day of the attack. They also alleged that the South Sudanese army looted food that the WFP had intended to distribute.

‘Ceasefire violation’

SPLA Spokesman Col. Philip Aguer told Radio Tamazuj that it was the rebels who attacked the army, and not the army who attacked the rebels. He also acknowledged there were casualties, but not as many as claimed by the opposition.

“The forces of Riek Machar broke the cessation of hostilities agreement – they are not respecting the cessation of hostilities agreement,” he said.

He also disclosed that the fighting over the last several days has not been limited to Nhialdiu but also was in Guit and in Mayom County, “especially in Wangkai area,” he said, referring to a town that was reportedly only recently taken by the rebels. 

Meanwhile, Radio Tamazuj learnt that a team of ceasefire observers seeking to travel outside of Bentiu yesterday were turned back by government forces.

Heavy casualties

The SPLA attack on Nhialdiu was repulsed with heavy losses, according to Gai Kulang, a rebel military spokesman. He told Radio Tamauzj on Tuesday night that they killed more than 200 government soldiers.

Separately, the other opposition spokesman, County Information Secretary Banyany Wang, put the number lower at 65 only.

But he deferred to Kulang on the matter, saying, “The number 65 that I mentioned is only those that I saw myself.” The exact number could not be verified he said because many of the dead were still lying in the open in the bush.

He declined to say how many opposition fighters were killed, saying it was a matter for the rebel command to disclose. Radio Tamazuj was unable to obtain information on the number of opposition soldiers killed and wounded in the fighting.

UN sources said the rebel casualties could also be high but there was no way of knowing. 

In terms of wounded, the UN Public Information Office disclosed that 50 wounded people have arrived to the government military hospital in Bentiu, without saying who they were.

Another informed source in Bentiu confirmed that the influx of wounded to the Bentiu hospital were in fact government soldiers. Another 10 wounded soldiers were taken to the UNMISS clinic in Bentiu with gunshot wounds.

Effect on civilians

The UN World Food Programme says it has also been forced to suspend operations at Yida Refugee camp in the north of Unity State.

Joyce Luma, WFP Country Director, said on Eye Radio FM on Tuesday night, “Sometimes our own staffs have been harassed as they are trying to undertake humanitarian assistance – you know just today for instance we were doing distribution.”

For his part, the official in Rubkona County stated, “The situation of the people is bad. The children and the infants need food and the population of 37,000 people do not have food.”

“We are calling on the world and on the UN so that they also return, and also… the area needs peace. South Sudan in general needs peace. Peace will help in everything,” said Banyany.

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