* U.N.’s Holmes says south Sudan tribal violence worrying
* Hundreds dead in violence stemming from cattle disputes
* Holmes says region "cannot afford another war"
By Yara Bayoumy
AKOBO, Sudan, May 8 (Reuters) - Tribal violence in south Sudan that has killed hundreds of people in recent weeks is worrying and the region cannot afford another war, a senior U.N. official said on Friday.
Attacks stemming from disputes over cattle have escalated in recent months in south Sudan between two rival ethnic groups in an area where livestock are prized by southern pastoralists and represent wealth, status and stability in fraught times.
"The scale of conflict, scale of death, scale of destruction is really worrying," U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes told journalists in Akobo in south Sudan’s Jonglei state that is the scene of the fighting.
"It suggests there’s a real problem about how to reconcile the communities, because this fighting has not necessarily stopped," Holmes said, adding: "We saw people with bullet wounds which are quite recent. So there’s a real fear this fighting will restart ... This area cannot afford another war." International analysts and south Sudanese officials worry that the tribal violence may contribute to a divisive atmosphere ahead of national elections due in early 2010 and a referendum on southern independence in 2011. The violence is part of a vicious cycle of cattle raiding and counter-attacks that has plagued Sudan’s oil-rich south since a 2005 north-south peace deal ended one of Africa’s longest conflicts but left southern civilians heavily armed.
The remote and marshy Jonglei state — where French oil giant Total (TOTF.PA) holds a massive, mainly unexplored concession — has been hit hard by cattle raids and related killings that have fractured communities along ethnic lines.
THOUSANDS MAY HAVE DIED
At least 453 people, mainly women and children, were killed in March in attacks by the Lou Nuer tribe on villages of the rival Murle ethnic group, widely understood to have been in retaliation for the theft of 20,000 Lou Nuer cattle in January.
Hundreds more people were reported killed in reprisal violence in April, and Holmes said it was possible thousands had been killed overall, adding that "nobody really knows" the true toll.
"There’s a real issue about how to reconcile these communities, how to come between them, are there sufficient police and military to do that? Are they intervening in the right way?" he said.
"The second concern is how to help the people who have been displaced by this fighting. We’ve seen 20,000 people or more in the village with poor shelters, inadequate water and food for the time being," he added, saying the upcoming rainy season could complicate matters.
The southern army was not reported to have intervened to protect civilians during the violence of the past two months, and the deputy governor of Jonglei state has said the army was under orders from southern President Salva Kiir to keep out of civilian problems.
Government attempts to disarm heavily armed areas after more than 20 years of north-south war have been patchy and at times violent when communities have fought back. An estimated 2 million people were killed and some 4 million people were displaced in two decades of north-south civil war fought over ideology, race, religion and oil. A separate conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region is still continuing. (Reporting by Yara Bayoumy; Writing by Cynthia Johnston)