Dozens of people have recently been killed in violence that includes beheadings and sexual attacks in a volatile county in South Sudan, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan said Monday.
The mission said it documented 72 civilian deaths between Feb. 17 and April 7 in Unity State's Leer county. Among the victims was a local staffer with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, it said.
Sixty-four cases of sexual violence, including gang rapes, were recorded in Leer in the same period. The attacks were carried out by “armed youth” from the neighbouring counties of Koch and Mayendit.
“I am strongly appalled by these horrific attacks on civilians in Leer," Nicholas Haysom, special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for South Sudan, said in a statement. “We must all do everything we can to ensure that victims and survivors get the justice they deserve and receive the care and support they need.”
Markets, homes, humanitarian facilities and warehouses were looted and burned down. An estimated 40,000 people have fled the violence in Leer, with thousands reportedly crossing the Nile River to shelter in another state, that statement said.
The U.N. mission said it has deployed more peacekeepers to conduct regular patrols in Leer town.
South Sudan has been plagued by sporadic violence since it gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
While some of the violence is communal, with rival ethnic groups retaliating against each other in remote areas, tensions in the capital Juba have risen recently after the deputy president accused the president of violating a fragile truce.
After years of battling against Sudan, South Sudan won independence in 2011. But just two years later the new country descended into a civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed.
The civil war ended in 2018 with a peace agreement that brought President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar together in a government of national unity, although relations remain strained between the two sides.