More than 30,000 people have now sought refuge on United Nations bases in South Sudan from fighting between the Government and rebels, with fatalities reported in an attack on one of the sites, top UN officials said today, pledging their best efforts to protect civilians in danger.
"Violence is spreading and could spread even further and we need all South Sudanese leaders and political personalities now to immediately appeal [for] calm and call on their supporters to suspend hostilities," Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York.
He added that a UN base in Akobo, in restive Jonglei state, was attacked with reports of as yet unspecified loss of life. "Political dialogue is the only way to prevent further escalation."
Speaking separately on the issue, UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said that in Akobo, where civilians have gathered, Lou Nuer youth have reportedly forced an entry into the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Temporary Operating Base to reach to those civilians.
"Fighting took place and we are yet to ascertain the situation. We fear there may have been some fatalities but can't confirm who and how many at this stage," he said, adding that UNMISS would try and extract unarmed UN personnel from the area, while reinforcing the base in Akobo with additional 60 troops from Malakal tomorrow.
He went on to say that the Government has reported to UNMISS that there has been youth mobilization and movement towards Bor, but the Mission has not been able to verify the claim. "At present, UNMISS is providing security to over 14,000 civilians gathered around the base, while providing protection at the Bor Airstrip," said Mr. Haq.
The Secretary-General has called on the Government to cooperate fully with UNMISS as it fulfils its protection mandate, including in the provision of basic relief to civilians in need and in conducting human rights investigations into allegations of human rights abuses in recent days.
The Secretary-General's Special Representative, Hilde Johnson, remains in constant contact with the Government and others with influence on these issues, where similar messages were conveyed, Mr. Haq added.
Mr. Eliasson said that UNMISS, which has over 6,800 troops and police in the country, has civilian protection as part of its mandate, "and we take that mandate very seriously, particularly in this situation when, clearly, civilians are in danger," he stressed. "And we will do our best to protect them in the compounds and bases where they are now housed. And we will try to also make sure that they have provision of basic relief."
Earlier in Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said an estimated 20,000 people, mainly women and children, are still camped at UN premises in Juba. Others are reported to be leaving the town in fear of attack by rival groups, in what she called a rapidly deteriorating security situation.
"We have received reports of civilians killed in Juba based on their ethnicity," she added. "I call on the Government to send a clear message on command responsibility within the SPLA (South Sudanese Army) to prevent retaliatory attacks based on ethnicity and tribal affiliation and to hold the alleged perpetrators accountable," she added.
Media reports say that hundreds of people have been killed since the clashes between SPLA forces began over the weekend, following what the President Salva Kiir's Government says was an attempted coup by soldiers loyal to former deputy president Riek Machar, who was dismissed in July.
"I am deeply worried about the safety and security of civilians caught in the crossfire. The risk of seeing the fighting taking on an ethnic dimension is extremely high and could result in a dangerous situation," Ms. Pillay said, voicing "extreme concern" for people arrested by the Government and reports of numerous extra-judicial killings, and urging the authorities to clarify the whereabouts of at least 10 former senior government officials arrested in Juba two days ago.
"I urge the Government to ensure that all those detained are accorded due process and that they are promptly either charged or released."
Mr. Eliasson welcomed reports today Mr. Kiir is willing to enter into talks and deplored the call by some from former deputy president Riek Machar camp to topple the Government. Yesterday Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council called on all parties to immediately cease hostilities and exercise restraint to prevent the further spread of violence.