Tens of thousands of people have fled fierce fighting in South Sudan's northern Unity State and humanitarian organizations have withdrawn staff from the area, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other aid groups said on Saturday.
The ICRC and Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym MSF) both said they withdrew their international staff from the rebel-held town of Leer in the south of oil-rich Unity State. MSF is "gravely concerned about an imminent attack" on Leer and has been forced to halt all their medical services at Leer hospital, the group said in a statement.
Government troops are retaliating against rebel attacks, said South Sudanese military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer. He said they are pursuing the rebels south of Bentiu, the capital of Unity State.
Leer is the hometown of South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar. South Sudan descended into conflict in mid-December 2013 when troops loyal to former vice president Machar clashed with those loyal to President Salva Kiir after months of political tension between the two leaders. Tens of thousands of people have died and 2 million have been displaced since the conflict began, according to the United Nations.
In January 2014, troops allied to the government swept through Leer and devastated the town, leaving behind dead civilians and forcing aid workers and civilians to flee into swamps to survive.
Some 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes due to fighting over the last week in the south of Unity State, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan Toby Lanzer said Friday.
MSF said it had closed the same facility last year when staff members fled on foot, carrying critically ill patients on their backs. They hid on the banks of swamps and survived by drinking swamp water.
"Today, we withdraw again with a heavy heart, because we know how civilians will suffer when they are cut off from critical, lifesaving medical care," said Paul Critchley, head of MSF’s mission.
The ICRC said it had also been forced to withdraw key staff from Leer and that it was concerned for the well being of tens of thousands of people.
"These communities face a fight for survival, hiding in the bush in unimaginably harsh conditions," said Franz Rauchenstein, who heads the ICRC's delegation in South Sudan.
The fighting could also prevent farming communities from planting much-needed crops during the imminent rainy season, he said.
Government checkpoints and bad roads have prevented aid workers and U.N. staff including human rights monitors from reaching areas affected by the fighting, said U.N. Spokesman Joe Contreras.