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Fighting in Raja kills 50, hundreds flee

Dimo Silva and Davis Mugume
An estimated 50 people were killed and hundreds of civilians fled their homes in South Sudan’s Lol State during fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and an unidentified armed groups.
17.06.2016  |  Wau, South Sudan
SPLA soldiers in Bentiu, January 14, 2014.  (photo: The Niles | Samir Bol)
SPLA soldiers in Bentiu, January 14, 2014. (photo: The Niles | Samir Bol)

The exact death toll from extended clashes in Raja town remained unclear on Friday. Local officials estimated around 50 people were killed when fighting broke out on Wednesday, June 15. According to the State Governor seven of his guards were killed while three others were wounded and dozens were killed by the armed group.

Alamin Janga, the Raja County Commissioner, said the attackers withdrew from the town after extended looting, including more than 30 million South Sudanese Pounds, according to the Ivory Bank branch in Raja. But Janga cautioned that up to now it is not safe for civilians to return and that all humanitarian workers were evacuated from Raja to Aweil on Thursday.

During the fighting, hundreds of civilians have taken cover at the Catholic Church in Raja and others fled to the near by bushes. Richard Batista Ingilizi, a Parish Priest of Raja Catholic Church said he received nearly five hundred civilians including children and elderly who fled heavy gunfire.

The town is destroyed.

Raja Town Mayor Marodama James Benjamin said the situation remains tense. “I have now moved out of the town, the town is empty and I am moving with many civilians who are fleeing. The town is destroyed, markets, including the bank is destroyed,” he said.

Both the SPLA and SPLA-IO leaders say the attackers are from an unknown armed group who are disgruntled over the cantonment areas and feel left out of the peace agreement signed in August 2015.

Governor Rizik Zacheria Hassan escaped to Aweil with other senior state officials. Joseph Mali, an official in Governor Hassan’s office, was among the hundreds who escaped the attacks and have arrived in neighbouring Aweil State. Mali said Governor Hassan narrowly avoided the attack, adding that dozens of wounded civilians have been arriving at Nyamlel Hospital in Aweil West County.

“Around 6:21 AM in the morning we heard shelling at the military barrack in Raja,” he explained, adding that 10 minutes later they were surrounded and attacked by “rebels”. “There were many of them. They shot us and when we realised we were surrounded, we escaped with the governor.” Mali said the gunmen also attacked a hotel where most state officials in the cabinet were lodging.

Rymond John, one of the governor’s body guards, managed to escape but sustained gunshot wounds to the back and is recovering at Aweil Hospital. He said they exchanged gunfire with the attackers, but government forces were overpowered and many of their colleagues shot right in front of them. After the attack, he and others fled into the bush. He says the attackers seemed to be a mixture of locals and northerners from Sudan.

Another resident, Maper Dau, who was shot at in the leg, said attackers were local youth who were dressed in army uniforms. Dau says state officials anticipated the attack as early as June 6, but were surprised that it didn’t happen by then. According to Dau there had been warnings by people who are against the creation of Lol State.

Janga as well said the attackers are people who are against the establishment of Lol State. “The motive of this group is that they do not want Lol State, they want a separate state of Raja alone.”

Some Raja residents did not approve of the annexation of Raja to Lol State and had written a memo to the President requesting a separate state. People in Raja are predominantly farmers belonging to the Fertit tribe. Earlier this year President Salva Kiir increased the number of states in the country from 10 to 28.

A chief who did not want to be identified said several youth were arrested over a week ago, when two other attacks occurred in the area of Mangayat, but added that the fighters later stormed Raja prison and set all the inmates free.

We have restored law and order.

SPLA spokesman Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang said the government does neither have a final casualty count, nor a have they identified the attackers, but stressed that the army is now in control of Raja. “War is a risky business, it is part of the military profession and therefore we don’t want to be diverted from the main responsibility by coming out with causalities or not. The most important thing is that we have restored law and order,” he said. He said they had chased the attackers from the town, adding: “Peace is being put to the test by enemies of peace and reconciliation.”

William Ezekiel, the SPLA-IO spokesman, condemned the attack and said that they are committed to the implementation of the peace agreement which after languishing for months, began to take shape with the formation of a transition government. The political moves in Juba, however, have failed to halt clashes elsewhere in the country.

Ezekiel said it wasn’t SPLA-IO forces who carried out the attack. However, he called for the cantonment of the forces to control what he calls “unknown gunmen” from destabilising the peace implementation process. “I don’t know who are these guys, of course this is not the first time of such attack happened,” he said, adding that clashes recently took place in Munuki inside Juba, Gudele and elsewhere. “We call for the quick establishment of cantonment to avoid such activities happening in future,” he said. He believes establishing the cantonment areas – military garrisons or camps – will enable leaders to better control their forces.


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