JUBA (Reuters) - At least 57 people, most of them women and children, were killed in tribal clashes on Wednesday in South Sudan’s vast Jonglei state, the latest deaths in a cycle of ethnic violence displacing 60,000 people, the government said Friday.
South Sudan declared independence from north Sudan in July under the terms of a 2005 peace agreement that ended decades of civil war.
Its government is now struggling to control an underdeveloped territory roughly the size of France.
The country has been plagued by ethnic clashes over cattle, territory and blood feuds for decades but violence has risen, fuelled by a flood of weapons left over from the civil war and other conflicts.
Fighting between Lou Nuer and Murle groups broke out about two weeks ago in remote regions of Jonglei state, home to a largely-unexplored oil field operated by France’s Total.
At least 57 people were killed in a fresh outbreak of fighting Wednesday when armed Murle fighters attacked three Lou Nuer villages in Uror country in northern Jonglei state, said government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin.
“The government cannot control everything. It’s a huge area ... Eleven men were killed, the rest were women and children,” he said.
Benjamin said the attackers had also wounded 53 people and stolen cattle. The government was sending army and police reinforcements to the area in Jonglei, which borders Ethiopia, he added.
“These were probably revenge attacks,” he said.
Aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it had flown out thirteen wounded to neighboring Upper Nile state.
“Five adult women and two adult men had gunshot wounds and the remaining six patients were children under five, with beatings or gunshot wounds,” MSF said in a statement.
The violence started when around 6,000 Lou Nuer men attacked the main Murle town of Pibor and other settlements in southern Jonglei, displacing 60,000 people and stealing thousands of cattle, U.N. and government sources say.
After the Lou Nuer campaign lasting several days Murle men attacked two villages in Akobo county in northern Jonglei, killing at least 24, according to the government.
Ravaged by decades of civil war South Sudan is one of the least developed countries with few roads existing outside the capital Juba.
Lou Nuer have blamed the Murle on attacks and cattle raids in northern Jonglei in August which have killed some 600. Around 200 people maybe have been abducted then, according to the United Nations.
The United Nations said around 20,000 displaced people had started to return to Pibor, but others were still hiding in the bush.
“We started yesterday the general deliveries of food ... in two of the most heavily affected areas,” said Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan.
The U.N. World Food program (WFP) said it had sent on Thursday 44.5 metric tons of food into Pibor County to feed over 2,500 people.
MSF has treated some 380 people since reopening a clinic in Pibor last Sunday, said its Jean Marc Jacobs, deputy head of its mission in South Sudan.
“There are people who had injuries which they couldn’t treat for days. We are stabilizing them,” he said, adding that also many Malaria cases were being treated.
South Sudan’s government has declared Jonglei a disaster area.
Some analysts say South Sudan may become a failed state as the government struggles to end tribal and rebel violence, widespread corruption and build up state institutions.
The country contracted oil sales worth around $3 billion but analysts say there are little signs of development.
Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Matthew Jones