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Hundreds drown while fleeing battle in South Sudan

As many as 300 civilians were on packed boat

People displaced by fighting in South Sudan have sought safety by piling onto boats like this one on Jan. 9. Over the weekend, an overloaded ferry sank.

AFP/Getty Images

People displaced by fighting in South Sudan have sought safety by piling onto boats like this one on Jan. 9. Over the weekend, an overloaded ferry sank.

NAIROBI — It happened during a panic that has unfolded with frightening regularity in recent weeks. Fighters were advancing. Crowds of civilians fled to the river to escape the violence, rushing into barges to cross the White Nile. Amid the frenzy, officials said Tuesday, more than 200 people were killed when the ferry carrying them to safety went down.

After a month of fighting in South Sudan, nearly half a million people have fled their homes and thousands have been killed. Many have sought safety by crowding onto boats, with witnesses describing passengers being crushed or falling overboard and drowning in the rush to escape. But the recent accident, which officials said took place over the weekend, is the worst reported in the conflict.

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All of the people killed, possibly as many as 300, were civilians, including children abandoning the town of Malakal, said Colonel Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the South Sudanese military. “The boat was overloaded,” he said.

The Right Rev. Hilary Garang Deng, the Episcopal bishop of Malakal, said he had received reports of the panic onshore, with people “running for their lives, fearing because the rebels were advancing.” Deng, who is presently in Juba, the capital, said there was little concrete information on the disaster because phone service in the city had been cut.

Rebel forces attacked Malakal, the capital of the oil-rich state of Upper Nile, once again Tuesday, officials said. The city has traded hands twice in the conflict, with the rebels capturing it, then retreating in the face of a government assault in late December. According to Doctors Without Borders, on Sunday 94 gunshot victims arrived by boat at a hospital in another city, wounded in the fighting on the front line outside Malakal.

“Today there is fighting anew” in and around Malakal, said Toby Lanzer, the UN humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, in a message on Twitter on Tuesday. He said the number of civilians seeking protection at the UN base there had “soared from 10,000 to 19,000.” That number has now reached 20,000, according to Ariane Quentier at the UN Mission in South Sudan.

The conflict in South Sudan stems from a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar. Kiir dismissed Machar along with the rest of his Cabinet in July. Fighting broke out Dec. 15, after the president accused Machar of an attempted coup.

UN officials have said the death toll in the conflict has risen significantly since their estimate in late December that more than 1,000 people had been killed. The International Crisis Group said last week that the number of fatalities was approaching 10,000.

The conflict looks increasingly like the all-out civil war that diplomats say they have been trying to prevent.

“If this isn’t civil war, what is a civil war?” said Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He said there were organized forces on both sides with clear command and control, both administering territory and both with political leadership.

“It fits the definition in every textbook,” de Waal said.

The humanitarian crisis continues to grow. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, about 413,000 people are internally displaced and 66,500 are seeking refuge at UN bases around the country. More than 74,300 have fled the country, with an additional 4,000 to 5,000 arriving daily in neighboring Uganda alone.

“We all assume that the humanitarian situation will get worse,” said Jose Barahona, country director in South Sudan for Oxfam. Access for humanitarian aid groups has been difficult . In places like Malakal, he said, it can be safe one day and dangerous the next, as offensives and counteroffensives take shape.

“Due to the uncertainty of military operations, we have been deploying and evacuating people the whole time,” Barahona said. “There are very few places in the country where we can actually go.”

The Satellite Sentinel Project, a nonprofit group, released satellite photographs showing homes destroyed in the town of Mayom, in Unity state, a region where there are large oil reserves. The satellite pictures also showed damage to oil storage tanks and manifolds in the state. In Jonglei state, the market in the capital of Bor suffered significant damage, as did homes in nearby villages, many of which were burned to the ground.

At least three aid workers have been killed. Dozens of humanitarian aid compounds have been looted of supplies, and dozens of vehicles have been stolen.

In a statement Sunday, the United Nations said interviews and investigations had revealed “horrific allegations of atrocities by antigovernment forces against civilians and surrendering soldiers, including summary executions, torture, sexual violence, and ethnically targeted killing.”

The UN Mission said it “deplores these horrendous acts of violence and utter disregard for human life and dignity.”

Diplomats from across the region and around the world have urged, threatened, and begged the two sides to negotiate a cease-fire, to no avail. Over the weekend, the US special envoy, Donald E. Booth, met with Machar at an undisclosed location. But there has been no breakthrough.

“They’re under enormous pressure for a cessation of hostilities and a release of the detainees,” de Waal said. “It’s always better to have people at the table, because having them at the table means when the thinking does shift they’re there to make a deal.”

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