JUBA, Sudan, (Reuters) – Tribesmen shot dead 38 people — including women, children and soldiers — in an inter-tribal attack in southern Sudan where violence is escalating from seasonal cattle-raiding into revenge killings.
Southern officials have blamed at least some of the worsening fighting on agitators from Khartoum’s ruling party who they say are arming civilians in the south to cause unrest ahead of a 2011 southern referendum on independence.
Around dawn on Friday armed members of the Lou Nuer tribe opened fire indiscriminately in a village in Jonglei state while attempting to steal cattle from its Dinka residents, the state’s governor told Reuters.
“Thirty-eight people were killed and 64 wounded,” Kuol Manyang said on Saturday. He said the dead included women and children and seven southern soldiers based in the Wernyol settlement in Twic East county of Jonglei.
Much of Jonglei is part of an oil concession owned a consortium led by France’s Total that has remained largely unexplored due to decades of war.
Internecine violence has killed more than 1,000 people in south Sudan this year, U.N. officials say. Death tolls from such incidents in recent years usually did not exceed 20 people.
While cattle raiding is an annual dry season occurence, the number of killings this year and the targeting of women and children mark a significant escalation since a 22-year-long north-south war ended with a 2005 peace deal.
Aid workers have warned that the violence is worsening an already dire humanitarian situation, leaving tens of thousands displaced from their homes and exacerbating food shortages caused by poor rains and high food prices.
The Dinka and Lou Nuer tribes are major southern pastoralist groups with a long history of inter-tribal cattle raiding. The Lou Nuer have also clashed with the smaller Murle ethnic group, with hundreds killed in attacks and counter-attacks on villages.
Iain McDonald, from the south Sudan World Food Programme office, told Reuters that southern pastoralists are further suffering because a glut of cattle in the southern market had depressed their exchange value for grain.
Earlier this month more than 180 Lou Nuer, forced to settle near a fishing river because of hunger, were killed by armed Murle men. Like other attacks this year, women and children were targeted and made up the majority of the dead.
Manyang, Jonglei’s governor, said relations between different ethnic groups was good and that the fighting, mostly between their youth, was better understood as an issue of criminality than ethnic fighting.
“These are criminals. Part of it is to loot the property of others. There is no employment. The means of survival is very difficult,” he said.
Some 2 million people were killed in the north-south war, which is separate from violence in Darfur but also involved conflict over resources, ethnicity and political ideology.