Why a pro-government militia attacked UN compound in South Sudan
The government has repeatedly accused the UN of harboring rebels in its camps. Many are worried the attack marks a new and dangerous phase in the civil war.
Scores of civilians were killedÂ ThursdayÂ and more than 100 were injured when an armed youth militia attacked a United Nations base in the South Sudan town of Bor, where some 5,000 civilians were sheltering from the civil war.
The attackers, claiming to be peaceful demonstrators, ignored peacekeepersâ€™ warning shots and breached security fences to spray bullets at civilians inside before the "blue helmets," as UN forces are often known, forced them out.
It was the deadliest incident at a UN base in the four-month conflict, which began in December when the Army split along ethnic lines in a political struggle between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his rival Riek Machar, a Nuer. Thousands of people have been killed, and over a million have fled their homes, including 75,000 taking refuge in UN bases across the country.
Thursday's killings mark a low point in South Sudan for the UN, which has faced continual accusations from the government of siding with the rebels. The Bor incident is also the first attack by a pro-government civilian militia, perhaps marking a new and dangerous phase of the fighting.
â€śI think this is reaching another level of conflict that I hoped would be avoided,â€ť says Jok Madut Jok, director of the Sudd Institute, aÂ Juba think tank. He addsÂ that recent rebel victories may be driving an armed Dinka populace to take a more aggressive role.Â Bor, the riverside capital of hard-fought-for Jonglei State, has changed hands repeatedly but has been in government control since January.Â
High death toll
A UN official in the Bor base told the Monitor by phoneÂ FridayÂ morning that he â€śvisually confirmedâ€ť more than 40 dead civilians, and that nearly 100 were injured.Â Â At Bor's hospital, outside the compound, Dr. Ayool G Ayool said by phone that he signed death certificates of 10 people â€“ presumably attackers â€“ shot by peacekeepers, and warned the death toll could rise.Â
Toby Lanzer, the UN humanitarian chief for South Sudan, said he was â€śoutragedâ€ť by the attack, adding â€śwe will not be deterred.â€ť
The UN has struggled to maintain its image in South Sudan during the war.Â Â At the heart of the problem, and apparently the cause of Thursdayâ€™s attack, is the idea that UN bases are sheltering members of the White Army, a rebel-aligned Nuer militia accused of committing atrocities against Dinka civilians.
The UN will protect any unarmed person in civilian clothes.Â Â In Bor, many Dinka say rebels dropped their weapons and entered the UN base once the government retook the town.Â Â Earlier this week, Nuer civilians in the UN base in Bentiu loudly celebrated the rebel takeover there, firming up perceptions that UN-protected civilians include rebel sympathizers or former militants.
â€śBasically they were objecting to the presence of White Army people within the Protection of Civilians area [in the base],â€ť the UN source in Bor said of Thursdayâ€™s attackers.
South Sudan has accused the UN of running a â€śparallel stateâ€ť in its compounds.Â Â An attempt in January by a government minister to enter Borâ€™s base with armed bodyguardsâ€”a UN protocol violationâ€” fueled further distrust.
In March, South Sudanâ€™s Army found weapons in a mislabeled shipment of UN goods.Â Â The UN said it was a mistake, but the government accused them of trying to arm rebels, and organized street protests against the UN.Â Â The UN then released a report accusing the South Sudanese Army of harassing its staff.
â€śThe situation has gotten to a point where there cannot be any trust between the leaders in the government at the moment and the local UN,â€ť says Mr. Jok, at the Sudd Institute.Â Â â€śNow the UN is increasingly having that [negative] image not just by the government, but the people who support the government.Â Â The result of this tense relationship just manifested itself yesterday. â€ť
The attack on Nuer civilians in Bor has deeply shaken their confidence in the UNâ€™s ability to protect them.
â€śWe think they will come again and attack,â€ť William Tut, the Bor camp civilian chairman, says by phone.Â Â â€śThey see that there is nothing stopping them.â€ť