Three aid workers with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have been killed in South Sudan, during fighting between government forces and National Salvation Front (NAS) rebels.
The aid organization said Wednesday it has suspended Ebola screening activities at various locations near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, because it is too dangerous to continue operations in those areas at this time.
The IOM communications officer in Juba, Liatile Putsoa, told VOA's South Sudan in Focus that one female and two male volunteer aid workers from Morobo County were caught in cross-fire Sunday between government forces and NAS rebels who were fighting in the remote village of Isebi, in Yei River state.
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of our staff members. We reiterate that innocent civilians and humanitarian workers should not be targets of such a senseless act of violence," Putsoa said.
On Wednesday, the IOM still did not have a clear understanding of what the aid workers were doing when they got caught up in the fighting, according to Putsoa.
In a statement Wednesday, the aid group said a female volunteer and the son of the murdered female aid worker were abducted during the attack. Their whereabouts were unknown.
The statement said two more male volunteers suffered non-life threatening injuries and one of the injured was recovering from a gunshot wound.
Emmi Antinoja, head of communications for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Juba, said the aid organization strongly condemns "violence against humanitarian workers and demands that those responsible be brought to justice."
NAS, SSPDF responses
On Tuesday, the National Salvation Front issued a statement in which it accused government forces of attacking rebel positions in Morobo County on Oct. 27 and 28, adding that NAS forces fought back in self-defense.
When asked about the aid workers killed Sunday, NAS spokesperson Suba Samuel said he could not understand how IOM workers were among the 17 government forces that the NAS claimed to have killed during the fighting.
"I don't know how IOM personnel happened to be involved in that. But what we know, we pursued SSPDF (South Sudan People's Defense Force) soldiers and it was purely a military operation. If there were civilians, they could be the wives of those soldiers that are around," Samuel told South Sudan in Focus.
SSPDF spokesperson Major General Lul Ruai Koang confirmed that clashes occurred in Morobo County on Sunday but accused NAS rebels of attacking government forces' positions in Isebi.
Koang said he was not aware of any deaths among IOM workers.
"The report I received did not indicate that we had personnel from that organization that were killed along with our service men. You could find out from the civil authority in the area but the area attacked is purely ours. … Maybe they were attacked in a separate incident," Kuang told South Sudan in Focus.
The IOM has suspended Ebola awareness and monitoring activities along the South Sudan-DR Congo border following the recent violence.
"Right now the measure that we have taken is, we have suspended operation in five locations; that is in Isebi, Bazi, Kirikwa, Lasu and Okaba, and so we cannot guarantee the safety and security of our personnel," said Putsoa.
This marks the first killing of aid workers in South Sudan since 2018, according to the UNOCHA.
A total of 115 aid workers have been killed in South Sudan since the outbreak of violence in December 2013, which touched off a five-and-a-half-year conflict between government and rebel forces.
Most of South Sudan's warring parties signed a revitalized peace agreement in September 2018; however, the NAS was not one of them.