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Gunmen in Government Uniforms Go on Massacre in Wau Town

FILE - Boys play with toy guns made from long grass reeds at a displaced persons camp protected by U.N. peacekeepers in Wau, South Sudan, Sept. 4, 2016.
FILE - Boys play with toy guns made from long grass reeds at a displaced persons camp protected by U.N. peacekeepers in Wau, South Sudan, Sept. 4, 2016.

Eyewitnesses say gunmen dressed in military uniforms went on a massacre Monday in South Sudan's Wau town. They say dozens of people were killed and scores of others wounded when gunmen who looked like government forces stormed houses, killed civilians and looted property.

Odongi Simon, a resident of Wau's Nazareth neighborhood, said: "It started with the sound of gunshots around the areas of Nazareth, Hai Bafra and those areas that are inhabited by the Luo and Fertit in Wau. We have seen many people were just pulled out of their rooms. When they are recognized as Fertit and Luo they are killed."

Simon said a combination of armed men in military uniform and others in civilian clothes conducted house-to-house searches early Monday, killed dozens of unarmed civilians, then burned their houses and looted property. He said the violence paralyzed markets, schools and government offices.

"The general situation is very tense. No one is coming out of their room," Simon said. "Those who know they are targeted, they cannot come out of their rooms to go on the street, because once they go they are arrested or they are killed on the spot."

Aid needed

Father Moses Peter, a Catholic priest at the Wau Diocese, says thousands of civilians, mostly women and children, are seeking shelter at the church compound. Father Peter said the number of displaced seeking shelter likely will increase unless aid agencies arrive.

"We don't have something in our hands to give them," Father Peter said. "They need to be given food for children who are just coming from home. And the second one could be, maybe, shelter because they are many now and most of them don't have shelter."

A Red Cross surgical team said it was flying to Wau on Monday to assist those wounded in the attack. The team's arrival is part of the planned project by the International Committee of the Red Cross to support the Wau Teaching Hospital in its surgical capacity. The ICRC said it received multiple requests to assist medical staff in Wau.

A 23-year-old woman who, for security reasons, preferred to be identified only as Nonoya is among those sheltering at the Catholic Church compound. Nonoya said she saw bodies of young men as she fled to the church.

A medical worker speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from government soldiers said 12 bodies bearing bullet wounds were brought to the mortuary at Wau Teaching Hospital.

Conflicting tallies

Despite the eyewitness accounts, Wau State Deputy Governor Anthony Charles Mbgerende said six people were killed and four others wounded in the violence.

Mbgerende declared a curfew within Wau town. He said his security officers are looking for the men in military uniform and the others who carried out the massacre.

"We don't know, actually, where they are from. But some of them are in civilian dress and some of them in [military] uniform. Sometimes the uniform half is for the army and another one is police," Mbgerende said.

SPLA Deputy Spokesperson Santo Dominick in Juba said government forces fought with opposition forces in the Baggari area, about 25 kilometers southwest of Wau town, on Saturday and Sunday. Dominick said government forces captured Baggari, which has been under the control of armed opposition forces for several months. He said the situation in Baggari is "now getting gradually to normalcy."

The secretary general of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement In Opposition loyal to Riek Machar said government forces shot and killed 18 civilians in Wau town.

Tingo Peter confirmed that the South Sudan Army has been combing residential areas in Wau, targeting individuals from certain ethnic groups. Peter confirmed that government soldiers and their proxy militia attacked rebel positions around Wau town.

"The government soldiers, and the Mathing Anyor [a government-backed militia] [had] the plan to attack the Baggari area with heavy ops from the government and the helicopter from up [above], so they shoot the area since Friday and our forces managed to evacuate from the area of Baggari. Yesterday, we managed to come back to Wau town," Peter said.

Peter told South Sudan in Focus that government soldiers and their militia group killed 17 men and one female in Wau town, all of them civilians. He said the SPLM-IO did not start the fighting.

Valeria Gamboni, deputy head of the ICRC delegation in South Sudan, said in a statement, "We call on all weapon bearers to respect civilians, health facilities and ICRC and other medical staff during this tense time."

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    John Tanza

    John Tanza works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is the managing editor and host of the South Sudan In Focus radio program.