U.N. reaction to Malakal violence in South Sudan marred by confusion

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Confusion over command and control and rules of engagement marred a response by United Nations peacekeepers to deadly violence in a U.N. compound in South Sudan sheltering nearly 50,000 civilians, the world body said on Tuesday.

A United Nations logo is seen on a glass door in the Assembly Building at the United Nations headquarters in New York City September 18, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar

During the two-day incident in Malakal in February, at least 30 civilians were killed and 123 people wounded. Aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres accused the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as UNMISS, on Tuesday of taking up to 16 hours to act.

The U.N. said it is discussing the incident with relevant troop contributing countries, which a diplomatic source said included Rwanda, Ethiopia and India. The source said several commanders could be sent home over failures in the response.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said a preliminary U.N. Board of Inquiry report into the peacekeeping mission’s response found “there was confusion with respect to command and control and Rules of Engagement and a lack of coordination among the various civilian and uniformed peacekeepers in Malakal.”

He said that the United Nations was reviewing a number of recommendations by the inquiry, including the performance of the troop and police contributing countries at a site that was sheltering some 48,000 civilians.

A separate U.N. special investigation into the circumstances leading to the violence found that the immediate trigger for the fighting - which pitted Shilluk and Nuer people against Dinka and Darfuri people - was an attempt by two South Sudanese soldiers to smuggle ammunition into the U.N. compound.

The report, seen by Reuters, found that some armed elements in South Sudanese (SPLA) army uniforms took part in the destruction of Nuer and Shilluk accommodations in the compound.

“As the SPLA was the only armed force operating and in control of Malakal town, it is difficult to exonerate the local SPLA commanders and government-allied militia from involvement in the incident,” the report said.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous and head of field support Atul Khare will brief the Security Council on Wednesday on the Malakal incident.

South Sudan spiraled into civil war at the end of 2013 after President Salva Kiir sacked his deputy Riek Machar. Thousands have been killed and millions driven from their homes during the conflict that began barely two years after the oil-rich state’s independence from Sudan.

U.N. peacekeepers are still sheltering 170,000 civilians at six sites, including Malakal. A June 17 note to the U.N. Security Council from U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on the protection of civilians sites said 40 percent to 45 percent of the 12,000-strong peacekeeping mission was dedicated to guarding those compounds.

“The mission has taken extraordinary action in ‘opening the gates’ to protect hundreds of thousands of civilians from physical violence,” Ban wrote.

“There are now serious concerns that the South Sudanese are turning to the mission to ‘open its gates’ in periods of minor unrest, or in some cases, simply turning to the POC sites to receive better shelter and humanitarian assistance,” he said.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alan Crosby