Attacks by the Murle ethnic group on the Lou Nuer ethnic group in Jonglei State in Southern Sudan are a new and worrisome development, the top UN official in the region warned.
"What we have seen recently, where we have seen attacks on civilian settlements, not just cattle raiding... is a new dimension that I find worrisome," said David Gressly, the regional coordinator for the UN peacekeeping mission in Southern Sudan (UNMIS).
"It is a situation that needs to be de-escalated relatively rapidly, before we see a further deterioration in the situation there," he told reporters in Juba on 21 April.
Armed Murle fighters in remote Akobo County attacked Lou Nuer villages over the weekend of 18 April, according to county commissioner Doyak Chol. As many as 300 were feared killed.
"The attacks have been terrible," he told IRIN by satellite phone. "We have 177 counted as dead but there are more unaccounted for... Many `tukuls’ [thatch huts] have also been burnt."
Clashes in Southern Sudan between rival ethnic groups break out frequently - some sparked by cattle rustling and disputes over natural resources, others in retaliation for previous attacks.
The scale of violence and the apparently increasing number of attacks on women and children, as well as the targeting of homesteads, is causing concern.
Some Southern Sudanese say outside forces keen to destabilise the south are backing the raids, but Gressly said there was "no evidence" to support allegations that such raids were being fomented by external forces - such as officials in northern Sudan. Khartoum fought a long war with the south until a peace accord was signed in 2005.
"We want to work very closely with the government at all levels to try to help control the security situation there," he added.
Second outbreak of violence in a month
The recent clashes in the Akobo were the second outbreak of deadly violence between the two ethnic groups in Jonglei in a month. In March, about 750 people were killed in clashes in Pibor County, further south.
Gressly said peacekeepers were examining how they could better support those at risk of further attacks. "We are looking at how we can better carry out such a role, particularly in a volatile area like Jonglei State," he told reporters.
The vast and remote region provided a massive challenge to those trying to support peace efforts. "In order to carry out that role, we may need to be configured differently" to provide better protective support if required, Gressly added.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions