Over 100 orphans in South Sudan crosssfire

2011-03-14 20:26

Juba - More than 100 orphans were caught in the middle of gunfire in an attack on the capital of south Sudan's oil-producing Upper Nile state that killed more than 42 combatants, aid and military officials said.

Renegade fighters attacked Malakal on Saturday in the latest violence to stoke fears for the stability of the south ahead of its independence from the north, due to take place on July 9.

Just short of 99% of southern voters chose to declare independence in a January referendum promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war with the north.

Aid group SOS Children's Villages on Monday said the attackers forced their way into its compound in the town.

"Rebels gained access to the SOS Children's Village, where heavy fighting broke out between them and soldiers of the (south's) Sudan People's Liberation Army," said a statement from the UK-based group.

"The rebels took cover in one of the family houses and were surrounded by SPLA soldiers and police," it added.

Aid sources, who asked not to be named, said the militias had briefly taken the children hostage in the orphanage and a priest led negotiations to free the children.

Children unharmed

SOS said the children and staff were eventually freed unharmed but had to leave their belongings behind. They were now taking shelter in a hotel, it added.

Southern army spokesperson Philip Aguer said the southern army clashed with the militia and forced them out of the town.

More than 40 militiamen and two southern soldiers were killed, he said, and he had no information on civilian deaths.

The figures were almost double estimates of the death toll released on the day of the fighting.

Aid workers in the town, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters they saw the bodies of at least three civilians killed in the fighting on Saturday.

Renegade militia leader George Athor claimed responsibility for the attack, saying one of his deputies had set out to seize weapons and rebuff an army offensive against his men.

Athor, a former senior SPLA officer, launched his revolt last year saying he had been cheated out of the governorship of the south's Jonglei state in April elections.

Al-Bashir behind it

The UN's humanitarian chief in Sudan, Georg Charpentier, on Monday said the southern army had barred aid groups from large parts of Jonglei as it pursued Athor. He called on the SPLA to reverse the policy.

Charpentier said aid workers needed to reach people caught in both the fighting and an epidemic of the disease leishmaniasis, also known as kala-azar, a potentially fatal parasitic disease.

Southern politicians walked out of talks about preparations for independence from the north over the weekend, accusing Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of arming Athor and other militias to overthrow the south's government before the split.

The north's dominant National Congress Party (NCP) dismissed the accusations as "ridiculous".

Sudan's civil war, between the mostly Muslim north and the south, where most follow Christian and traditional beliefs, was fought over oil, ethnicity and ideology and killed an estimated two million people.