At least 118 people were killed and others injured in South Sudan over the weekend as the army attempted to disarm civilians in the county of Tonj East in the north-central state of Warrap
In the disarmament, President Salva Kiir is seeking to tackle insecurity and stem retaliatory tribal attacks in a country fractured along ethnic lines.
But aid groups had cautioned that the “top down” approach, instigated by a government viewed with suspicion by many in the country, was likely to fuel clashes.
The shooting reportedly started after the man who fled was caught and apprehended by security officers, Makuei Mabior, executive director of Tonj East County, told Xinhua.
“This invited his relatives to come to his rescue, forcing the security officers to open fire on the civilians in the market,” Mabior said, confirming that 34 soldiers and 84 civilians had since been killed.
South Sudanese Army Spokesperson Gen. Lul Ruai Koang said the clashes had been prompted by a civilian “resisting disciplinary measures” taken against him by security forces in the area.
Geoffrey L. Duke, director of the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms, an advocacy group based in the capital, Juba, said a dispute had arisen between soldiers and a number of civilians after a young man was detained.
When the young man tried to escape, he was shot in the back, Duke said, and that fueled an attack on the soldiers’ post on Saturday night. That attack was repulsed by security forces but an even bigger assault was mounted on Sunday, he added.
“We warned of possible clashes between disarmament forces and civilians, and this is exactly what happened,” Duke was quoted by The New York Times Nairobi Bureau as saying, adding that “Sadly, a big number of people lost their lives.”
During the fighting, a market in the nearby town of Romich was looted and shops burned, while many women and children fled in fear of their lives, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan said in a statement sent to East Africa Daily.
“Many women and children fled in fear of their lives,” United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The violence comes weeks after President Kiir announced the start of the extensive disarmament effort, a plan civil society groups in South Sudan warned as “hasty”.
Intercommunal violence — including cattle rustling, disputes over boundaries and revenge cycles — is rife, including in the Tonj East area where the latest clashes happened. In May and June, hundreds of people were killed in violence in another state, Jonglei.
The government’s disarmament efforts always looked complicated in a country awash in weapons after the civil war. In any case, many communities, particularly politically connected ones, are able to quickly rearm, said Alan Boswell, a senior analyst for South Sudan at the International Crisis Group.
“Disarmament in South Sudan resembles an abusive counterinsurgency operation, not an orderly collection of arms, which the local militias often resist giving up,” Boswell said.
Because the government lacks much “political legitimacy or authority” in many parts of the country, he added, it “relies on violence that often deepens the crisis.”
The violence comes as South Sudan’s unity government, which was formed in February, struggles to bring peace and stability.
The civil war began in 2013 and was mainly fought between Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group and the Nuer ethnic group of his rival, Riek Machar, who is now the first vice president.
The fighting cost more than 400,000 lives and displaced 4.3 million people.