A top U.N. official on Wednesday told the Security Council that a fresh wave of violence in South Sudan is dragging the world's youngest country closer to a "humanitarian catastrophe" as the global body bolsters its military presence there.
Edmond Mulet, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, warned council members that militia violence in South Sudan has displaced more than a million people. Almost 500,000 more have fled across borders.
The widespread displacement has been compounded by hunger and food problems. Almost 4 million people are at risk of going hungry amid growing concerns of famine, Mulet said. Up to 50,000 children are at risk of dying of acute malnutrition this year alone.
A cholera epidemic worsens, with 5,300 cases and 115 deaths, Mulet added.
"After three years of independence, South Sudan is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe and a protracted internal conflict," Mulet said. "This is a man-made crisis, and those responsible for it have been slow in resolving it."
South Sudan Ambassador Joseph Moum Malok said his government was committed to reaching a "final settlement for the conflict through negotiation" but that it has also been "forced to react in self-defense to protect its citizens."
The Security Council, which plans to visit South Sudan next week, expressed "outrage" at the recent attacks targeting civilians and humanitarian personnel, and underscored that such attacks "may constitute war crimes."
Peace talks between South Sudan's government and rebel fighters in Ethiopia were resumed on Monday with the aim of creating a transitional government, but they have yet to yield any breakthroughs following fresh clashes along the South Sudan-Sudan border. Some believe the violence threatens to pull Sudan and its rebel groups into South Sudan's civil war.
Gunmen hunting the Nuer ethnic group have been blamed for the deaths of at least six South Sudanese aid workers in recent days. All of the murdered aid workers are members of the Nuer, to which former vice president and current rebel leader Riek Machar belongs.
Fighting broke out in December after President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused Machar of trying to oust him in a coup. That sparked months of ethnic attacks and failed cease-fires.
In an effort to stop the violence, a massive humanitarian effort has begun to take root, Mulet said, adding: "The scale of humanitarian operations in South Sudan has reached the point that it now constitutes the biggest aid operation in any single country."
Armored personnel carriers are en route to Bunj, the center of the violence, to protect U.N. personnel, aid workers and civilians inside U.N. facilities. More than 3,500 U.N. troops, out of an authorized total of 5,500, have been deployed. An infantry battalion, military helicopters and additional aircraft are expected to follow by October. Four police units will reach South Sudan in some six months.
The Associated Press