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ICRC Suspends Operations in South Sudan County After Attack

A rebel soldier poses with his gun in Touch Riak, Leer county, on March 7, 2018, where famine has been declared since February 2017. The ICRC left the area after gunmen fired on the organization's compound.

An International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson says the organization suspended services in South Sudan’s Leer county after its compound came under attack earlier this month.

Aid agencies have confirmed reports of continued fighting between government forces and rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar in the region.

Mari Mortvedt said the attack by what she calls “unknown armed men” two weeks ago on the ICRC compound violates international humanitarian law and the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement both warring parties signed in December.

“Armed men went outside our compound around midnight and they fired shots inside the compound. There were eight staff members of the ICRC sleeping and one of the shots hit the leg of one of the security guards,” Mortvedt told South Sudan in Focus.

Mortvedt said the ICRC evacuated staff and suspended its operations in Leer.

Handouts of seed, tools on hold

“We had to postpone the distribution of seeds and farming tools that was going on when this happened. This was a distribution that was meant to benefit 24,600 people,” said Mortvedt. She said only a fraction of the tools and seeds had been delivered when the attack occurred.

The ICRC distributes free seeds and tools to families in Leer so that farmers can plant their crops ahead of the rainy season.

Leer is one of two areas in which the United Nations declared a famine last year. It’s one of the hardest hit areas of South Sudan’s five-year-long conflict.

Wounded soldiers airlifted to safety

Mortvedt said the ICRC has been busy airlifting soldiers injured in the latest fighting in and around Leer.

“Part of the mandate of ICRC is to evacuate the war-wounded from wherever they are in the country and we do this by either helicopter or airplanes,” said Mortvedt. She said the wounded are brought for surgical treatment in four different areas of the country.

The ICRC spokesperson said targeting aid workers violates international humanitarian law.

“This is really heartbreaking when something like this happens because an attack on the ICRC is not just an attack on us, it’s also an attack on the people we are there to assist because we have to cancel and postpone our activities when we are targeted and this frightens us, it shocks us,” said Mortvedt.

'Serious security incident'

Mortvedt called it “the most serious security incident we have had since August” when an ICRC truck driver was shot dead in the Equatorial region.

She said the ICRC is talking to armed groups in the area to get assurances that aid agencies will not be targeted once they resume operations.

Spokesmen for the government and for the rebels led by Machar confirm the clashes took place, but they accuse each other of violating the cease-fire signed in December.