3 January 2012
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Deputy Head of United Nations Mission in South Sudan


In the face of inter-ethnic conflict, the Government of South Sudan, supported by the locally based United Nations Mission, had taken decisive steps to evacuate civilians and deter spiralling violence, a senior official of the world body said at a Headquarters press conference today.


Lise Grande, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Officer-in-Charge of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), described the “fluid conditions” still evolving in Jonglei State after violence had flared up between the Lou Nuer and Murle ethnic groups late last month.  In the days before the Christmas holiday, the Mission had received information about a column of heavily armed Lou Nuer youth marching towards a series of Murle villages and towns, she said, adding that, in accordance with its mandate, UNMISS had been able to initiate an early-warning system that had allowed most of the population to flee before the attack.


That early-warning system was one of the Mission’s main tools for helping the Government protect civilians, said Ms. Grande, who is also United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan.  “In this case, it worked,” she added, noting that the Government and UNMISS had monitored the movement of the column of attackers towards the main town of Pibor.  The Mission had immediately deployed troops and begun to establish coordination mechanisms with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), as well as the South Sudanese police, in an effort to prevent the attack.  She said a defensive perimeter had been established and efforts made to help with the evacuation of civilians.  The town had been defended successfully despite weakness in the perimeter of its southern flank, which had facilitated some looting and the burning of a number of huts.


“The situation is much more stable now,” she said.  Noting that the attackers had amassed a large number of cattle and were leaving the Murle areas, she nonetheless emphasized that the humanitarian situation on the ground was “grim”.  The tens of thousands who had fled the attacks had had no access to food, clean water or shelter for more than a week, she noted.  The World Food Programme (WFP) had flown in supplies for the most vulnerable, but many were still waiting and would receive their first supplies next week.  Non-governmental partners, as well as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other agencies of the Organization, were also on the ground.


Describing the clash as the latest in a series of conflicts between the Lou Nuer and Murle, Ms. Grande said they had carried out reciprocal raids and reprisal attacks in addition to engaging in cattle rustling.  Besides the immediate and urgent responses required on the ground, she stressed that UMISS was working “on the political side” to gain a better understanding of the two groups and to work towards a peaceful long-term solution.  Riek Machar, Vice-President of South Sudan, was personally leading that peace effort, she added.


For his part, President Salva Kiir Mayardit had issued a statement warning that any politician or leader whose statements could be construed as encouraging ethnic tensions would be held accountable.  “‘Law and order must prevail in our new republic,’” Ms. Grande quoted the President as saying, noting that he had announced in the same statement that some 3,000 additional infantry and 800 police would be deployed to the conflict-ridden area.  He had also called on the Lou Nuer to end the violence and withdraw from Murle areas, she added.


Asked whether UNMISS had effectively defended Pibor or only Government buildings within it, she said Mission and Government troops had defended the town — which had not fallen to the opposition — and adjusted its southern flank within the first day of the defence.  The Mission had then “moved aggressively” and the attackers had fled.


In response to another question, she said that, while she could confirm that there had indeed been casualties during the fighting, she could not yet confirm the number of deaths.


A correspondent, recalling an August 2011 Murle attack on the Lou Nuer, asked what efforts were being made to prevent the conflict from “going back and forth”, to which Ms. Grande replied that, unfortunately, ethnic strife was currently a “feature of South Sudan”.  Government and Mission officials were working to bring distinct communities together in the long term, she stressed, adding that in the case of Jonglei State, such efforts represented the best chance of ending the “spiralling inter-ethnic violence”.


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For information media • not an official record