Over 200 dead in south Sudan "massacre": officials

JUBA, Sudan Tue Feb 15, 2011 11:36am EST

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JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - Attacks by a renegade militia in south Sudan's Jonglei oil state killed at least 211 people, a southern minister said on Tuesday, doubling earlier estimates of the death count.

The violence has reignited concerns for the security of the underdeveloped region where voters last month overwhelmingly voted to declare independence from the north in a referendum.

South Sudan's army said forces loyal to George Athor, a former army officer who launched a revolt after losing in last year's elections, carried out attacks in Jonglei last week.

French oil group Total leads a consortium controlling a largely unexplored oil concession in Jonglei.

Army and government officials on Tuesday told Reuters the scale of the carnage emerged after searches found bodies of women, children and other civilians still lying in remote areas.

Pagan Amum, a senior member of the south's ruling party, repeated accusations that the north was trying to destabilize the south by arming militias -- but stopped short of directly implicating northern government figures.

"It was a massacre of our people and it is really very painful," he told reporters. "We are a society that is traumatized ... Guns are in a lot of hands."

"Today armed groups are being financed, being armed, being sent into southern Sudan from the north. You know that George Athor who just caused the massacre in Fangak, his guns are coming from Khartoum," said Amum, secretary general of the dominant Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

Rabie Abdelati, a senior member of the north's dominant National Congress Party (NCP), denied the accusation.

"Athor's is a southern group and there is no connection between the NCP and Athor," he told Reuters.

MILITIA ATTACKERS

Southern government minister James Kok, who had just returned from Jonglei, told Reuters 211 people died in the fighting or later in hospital and at least 109 were wounded. His figures did not include casualties among the militias.

The dead included people who had just returned to the south to take part in the referendum, said the southern army spokesman Philip Aguer.

"Some were trying to flee the fighting and drowned in the river. Some were returnees from the north who were living under trees and were caught unawares," he added.

The referendum was promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the mostly Muslim north and the south where most follow Christianity and traditional beliefs.

Last month's referendum was largely peaceful and the NCP, led by president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, said it accepted the result. The south is due to secede on July 9.

The latest killings underline the deep ethnic and political divides that remain in the south. Death counts topping 100 were reported in a spate of clashes between tribal groups and militias in 2009 and early 2010.

Athor was a senior member of the then rebel southern army during the civil war. He stood for the governorship of Jonglei as an independent in last year's general elections and took to the bush after losing, accusing the SPLM of fraud.

Two million people were killed and 4 million fled during the civil war fought over ideology, oil, ethnicity and religion.

The fighting also set southern tribe against southern tribe, with the north backing militias from rival ethnic groups.

(Reporting by Jeremy Clarke; writing by Andrew Heavens; editing by Giles Elgood and Sonya Hepinstall)

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