U.N. officials say 10 aid workers are missing in South Sudan in what has been described as unclear circumstances.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said the workers went missing early Wednesday outside of Yei town, the capital of South Sudan’s Yei River State. OCHA said their convoy was headed to Tore County from Yei town to conduct a humanitarian needs assessment at the time.
The missing workers were from OCHA, along with the U.N. children’s agency or UNICEF, the Association of Christian Resources Serving Sudan, known as ACROSS, Action Africa Help, Plan International, and the South Sudanese Development Organization, or SSDO. The workers are all South Sudanese.
SSDO Executive Director Stephen Luga told VOA's South Sudan in Focus program he lost contact with his team at around 11 a.m. local time Wednesday. They are presumed to have been kidnapped.
“My team was going to do assessment on issues related to water and sanitation and we don’t know who has taken them. My appeal is that they should release them so that we will continue to help people who are suffering,” he said.
The U.N. humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, Alain Noudehou, said earlier he is “deeply concerned” about the well-being of the aid workers and demanding their immediate release without preconditions.
He condemned the presumed abductions and called on all parties to the conflict to ensure a safe and secure environment for humanitarian workers. Aid workers are often targeted by armed groups in South Sudan, which has been in the midst of a war between supporters of President Salva Kiir and those of his former deputy, Riek Machar, since 2013.
Army spokesman Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang said he has yet to receive any official communication about the situation, but accused opposition groups led by Machar and former SPLA Deputy Chief of Staff Thomas Cirilo of abducting the workers.
“The area around Yei has been crossed by rebel groups and they have been involved in the kidnapping of aid workers and therefore the international community should contact Riek Machar to ensure that these humanitarian workers are released,” Koang told South Sudan in Focus, adding they should be “held accountable because they have been interrupting humanitarian operations.”
Colonel Lam Paul Gabriel, deputy military spokesman of the SPLA-in Opposition faction allied to Machar, confirmed fighting has occurred in the area.
“We clashed with forces under the command of Joseph Palako of NAS (National Salvation Front). It is possible that the SPLA-IO is not part of that incident and let’s not rule out the possibility of other armed groups responsible for this,” Gabriel told South Sudan in Focus.
Heskia Jonathan, deputy chairman of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission in Yei River State, condemned those responsible for the disappearance of the aid workers.
“If we don’t allow these people to go do the humanitarian work, many people returning from Congo to Tore County will die and this act is hurting the people and we wish that they release these people,” Heskia told VOA. Hundreds of South Sudanese refugees have fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to escape fighting.
This marks the second time aid workers have been abducted by armed groups this month and the third time in the last six months in South Sudan.