MSAMBWENI, Kenya — Four hundred United Nations peacekeepers and 800 South Sudanese government troops were holding positions Wednesday in a key town in South Sudan's Jonglei state after a days-long rampage by an 8,000-strong marauding tribal militia left dozens dead and forced as many as 50,000 people to flee their homes.
U.N. officials said they believe that the militia, from Jonglei's Lou Nuer tribe, has retreated for now after running out of populated areas to loot. But the peacekeepers remained on watch in an area where ethnic violence between the Lou Nuer and their rivals, the Murle, has killed an estimated 1,000 people in the past year.
The rampage, which began before Christmas and ended Tuesday, took place in one of the most remote corners of the world's newest country, underscoring the violent animosity that remains embedded in South Sudan's fractured ethnic map just months after its independence from Sudan in July.
With each new round of raiding, mobilized columns of armed youths sweep through the savannah, looting cattle, torching homes, and slaughtering and abducting members of the rival group as they go.
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The ongoing violence, and the new government's inability to contain it, prompted the U.N. to keep a peacekeeping force in the country after it split from Sudan. But many now doubt whether the U.N.'s limited force will stop much of the bloodshed in a land with so much of it.
While the U.N. warned residents of Pibor, the Murle's capital and the apparent goal of the rampage, that the Lou Nuer militia was approaching, the U.N. troops made no attempt to halt the advancing column. By the time the Lou Nuer arrived at Pibor on Friday, the town had been abandoned, with the exception of U.N. and government troops. The Lou Nuer made one foray into the town but soon retreated when they found little there to steal and no people to kidnap or assault.
Government forces exchanged fire with the marauders, but the U.N. troops did not engage in combat with them.
Considering the difficult terrain and deployment limitations, the U.N. forces did the best they could, said Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan. U.N. forces were greatly outnumbered, she said.
"UNMISS is still in startup mode," she said, using the acronym for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. "We only had a percentage of our full strength."
Despite the established pattern of attacks and counterattacks — the most recent violence was at least the third major attack in recent months — South Sudan's army also seemed unprepared to respond. Army reinforcements were still on their way by the time the militia had retreated.
South Sudanese and U.N. officials traced the beginning of the rampage to the collapse last month of officially sanctioned, church-led peace talks between the two groups.
After talks broke off, the Lou Nuer began marching from Akobo, a town near the border with Ethiopia, to Pibor, 70 miles to the south. On Dec. 23, the militia razed the town of Likuangole, then burned a string of smaller settlements along the way. South Sudan's vice president, Riek Machar, flew in to try to persuade the militia youth to return home, but they refused. By the time the militia reached Pibor, as many as 50,000 civilians had fled their homes and are now scrounging for survival in areas with little water or food.
The humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders evacuated its foreign staff and reported that it had lost contact with 130 local staff, whom the group advised to flee.
No official death toll was available. The U.N. said that it believed the number of dead to be in the "tens or hundreds."
Paul Kuakuak, the head of a Murle youth organization, said by phone early Wednesday that he and other local officials still in Pibor feared venturing outside of the U.N.'s protected cordon.
"The situation is very bad," he said. "We assume that many people have died."
South Sudan's army defended its failure to stop the violence, saying it is focused primarily on securing the nation's disputed border with Sudan to the north amid escalating tensions. It said the responsibility for halting such domestic violence is the responsibility of South Sudan's much weaker police force.
It also accused its longtime foes in Sudan of flooding its interior with weapons.
"We still hold Khartoum responsible for fueling the inter-communal conflicts in Jonglei state," said Philip Aguer, South Sudan's military spokesman.
As for the U.N., Grande said the rampage had proven the effectiveness of at least part of its peacekeeping plan — making sure residents are warned in advance of impending threats.
"The peacekeeping approach is evolving, and it's clear that a very important part of this is early warning, which UNMISS accomplished through constant aerial surveillance and people on the ground. This alerted civilians to get out of harm's way," she said.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)
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