South Sudanese authorities are blocking United Nations peacekeepers from visiting a town where soldiers are alleged to have killed civilians including children this week, a U.N. spokeswoman said on Friday.
Peacekeepers have been trying to get to the town of Pajok, near the border with Uganda, for four days after unconfirmed reports emerged of mass killings.
“They are still not there,” said Shantal Persaud, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Mission in South Sudan. “Negotiations continue with the local authorities.”
The peacekeepers have been barred by the South Sudanese military, New York-based U.N. spokeswoman Eri Kaneko said this week.
Thousands of South Sudanese refugees fled into Uganda this week after they said government forces killed civilians in Pajok on Monday. A Reuters tally of witness testimonies counted at least 17 deaths.
The refugees said some of those killed were children shot as they tried to flee, while others had their throats slit before their bodies were strung up from door frames.
The South Sudanese government denied its forces targeted civilians. It said an operation in Pajok, a town of more than 50,000 people 15 km (10 miles) north of the Ugandan frontier, was to flush out guerrillas.
South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war, but has been mired in factional conflict since President Salva Kiir sacked his vice president Riek Machar in 2013. The fighting that followed has often split the country along ethnic lines.
Both sides have targeted civilians, human rights groups say.
More than 6,000 people fled from Pajok to Uganda this week, Babar Baloch, a U.N. refugee agency spokesman, said in a statement on Friday.
“Refugees report witnessing their loved ones shot dead at a close range, with many arrested or slaughtered, including children. Families fled in different directions; the elderly and disabled who could not run were shot dead,” he said.
Baloch added that many displaced people were still hiding in the bush trying to find their way to Uganda while homes and properties had been looted and burned, with main roads out of the town reported to be blocked by armed groups.
The assault on Pajok is the latest in a series of attacks in the fertile Equatoria region. Many towns and villages in the region are now deserted, residents say.
Around 1.7 million people have fled South Sudan, most of them to Uganda, which is struggling to cope with the influx. Nearly two-thirds of the new arrivals are children.