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South Sudan crisis sends refugee numbers soaring


 / AFP PHOTO / Charles Atiki Lomodong

/ AFP PHOTO / Charles Atiki Lomodong

Renewed fierce fighting has pushed nearly 200,000 people to flee South Sudan since July, sending the number of refugees from the war-scarred nation past one million, the UN said Friday.

“The number of South Sudanese refugees sheltering in neighbouring countries has this week passed the one million mark,” the United Nations refugee agency said in a statement.

Another 1.61 million people are displaced inside the country, it said.

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, has thus joined Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia as countries that have produced more than one million refugees, UNHCR said.

“Five years after independence, this is a very sad milestone,” spokesman Leo Dobbs told reporters in Geneva.

South Sudan, which gained independence in July 2011, descended into war just two and a half years later when President Salva Kiir in December 2013 accused his former deputy Riek Machar of plotting a coup.

Numerous attempts to shore up a fragile truce have failed, and in a major setback to peace efforts, fresh clashes erupting in Juba on July 8 this year between Kiir’s guards and troops loyal to Machar.

During the fighting in July, Machar, who had been persuaded to return to Juba to join a national unity government agreed under a peace deal, fled the country to Khartoum.

Since the fresh violence in July, more than 185,000 people have fled the country, UNHCR said, adding that most of those fleeing were women and children.

“They include survivors of violent attacks, sexual assault, children (who) have been separated from their parents … and people in need of urgent medical care,” the agency said.

It said refugees arriving in neighbouring countries were reporting heavy fighting across the southern Greater Equatoria region, where armed groups were killing civilians, sexually assaulting women and girls and recruiting young boys.

“Many refugees arrive exhausted after days walking in the bush and going without food or water,” UNHCR said.

Most of those most recently uprooted have crossed into Uganda, which counts 143,164 recent arrivals, bringing the total number of South Sudanese refugees in the country to nearly 375,000.

And there is no end in sight: over the past week alone, more than 20,000 new arrivals were registered in Uganda.

A surge of people has meanwhile also entered western Ethiopia’s Gambella region in the past week, while others have headed to Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

“These countries have commendably kept their doors open to the new arrivals,” UNHCR said.

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