Confirming that children were killed in South Sudan during recent brutal attacks on displaced civilians or as a result of being recruited by armed groups, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned today that the surging violence is exacerbating an already "very dangerous" malnutrition crisis.
The children were among the dozens of internally displaced persons (IDPs) attacked by gunmen on 17 April while sheltering at a UN site in the central South Sudanese town of Bor, capital of strife-torn Jonglei state, UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac told reporters in Geneva.
"The exact numbers are currently being verified," he said, adding that up to 23,000 people are currently sheltering at the base. Some of the children were killed either in direct attacks or as a result of being caught in the crossfire.
Over the past two months, thousands of people are believed to have been killed by fighting that began in mid-December 2013 as a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy president, Riek Machar. Since last Thursday, as fresh violence has swept towns in the northern and central parts of the country, clashes and reprisal attacks have forced thousands of people to seek refuge at the bases of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
"This is fierce, brutal infantry fighting - children must not be instruments of this conflict," UNICEF's Jonathan Veitch said earlier of the most recent violence. "Those in positions of command and leadership have a duty to keep children out of harm's way and take all necessary measures to prevent children being part of armed groups and forces."
Meanwhile, UNMISS has strongly condemned the violence, in which hundreds of civilians are thought to have been killed or injured, and which is believed to have been motivated by ethnicity and nationality. The fighting is also linked to a series of attacks in Bentiu town on hundreds of people in who hid in a hospital, mosque and church, and a UN World Food Programme (WFP) compound. The Mission is sheltering some 75,000 civilians throughout the country.
According to a UN spokesperson, the Mission reported today that many dead bodies remain by the side of the main road between Bentiu and Rubkona - and that the Rubkona market has been repeatedly looted.
UNMISS also says that on last Thursday, four rockets were directed at the Mission's base in Bentiu including two that exploded within the compound and one just outside. Two civilians that had been seeking shelter inside were injured.
Elsewhere in Unity State, the Mission has received reports that after fighting over the weekend, Opposition forces are in control of Mayom town, which is some 70 kilometres east of Bentiu.
As for Jonglei state, the Mission reports that the situation in Bor is tense. Yesterday, UN staff met with community leaders from the protection site to discuss security in light of Thursday's attack, and explained measures taken, including enhancements to the berm wall.
In Upper Nile State, the Mission also reports artillery explosions in Renk yesterday. Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and Opposition forces clashed in Renk over the weekend, and shells landed close to the base, wounding two UN contractors on Saturday.
"The Mission strongly condemns the fighting close to its premises where it continues to protect tens of thousands of civilians" said the spokesperson, adding that the UN once again reiterates the necessity for all parties to respect the inviolability of UN premises and assets, and to respect the life-saving work done by the United Nations in South Sudan.
In related news, UN Special Rapporteur Chaloka Beyani today warned that the deliberate ethnic targeting is further eroding protection for the displaced civilians.
"The safety and security of the displaced populations must be the absolute priority for the United Nations to safeguard," stressed the independent expert tasked by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor, report and advise on the human rights of IDPs worldwide.
He urged all parties to the conflict to abstain from violence against IDPs and other civilians, and also called for communities to stop hate speech which are increasingly being heard over the airwaves, some calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community.
This latest spate of killings is also worsening an already precarious food and water situation, making malnutrition increasingly likely for some 50,000 children under five years of age who could die by the end of the year without urgent action.
A quarter of a million children would suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of the year, UNICEF announced today.
UNICEF's immediate goal is to reach 150,000 children under five years old currently suffering from malnutrition, "partly through rapid response teams that would deliver ready to use therapeutic foods, micronutrients among others," Mr. Boulierac said.
Access to clean water is also a concern at the UN base in Bentiu, where there are currently only one or two bottles for each person per day. UNICEF staff are attempting to drill boreholes to provide more drinking water to the camps to balance out the "inadequate" water access.
The agency is calling for $38 million to meet nutrition needs in the country. That is in addition to a $1.3 billion appeal which is now just 38 per cent funded, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).