At least 127 people have been killed in clashes between armed civilians and government forces carrying out a disarmament exercise in the northern Tonj area of Warrap State in South Sudan, officials and the military said on Tuesday.
Makuei Mabior, executive director of Tonj East County, said that the clashes broke out on Saturday when an argument erupted between the security forces and a young man.
“The shooting took place because one of the youth was ordered by the army and police officers to stop and be checked, but he fled and the security officers pursued him until they apprehended him. This invited his relatives to come to his rescue forcing the security officers to open fire on the civilians in the market,” Mr Mabior told Xinhua by phone in Tonj.
“We confirmed 34 soldiers dead and 84 civilians killed,” he added.
Mr Mabior disclosed that the 118 death toll could rise because several civilians wounded in the clashes are unable to access treatment due to the looting and destruction of health facilities. He said several civilians are still hiding in the bushes for their safety.
The soldiers were part of the force undertaking civilian disarmament exercise in a bid to curb frequent inter-tribal violence in the area.
However, military spokesperson Lul Ruai Koang confirmed that 127 soldiers and civilians had died.
Gen Koang told The EastAfrican that the scuffle ensued when a young man refused to hand over a red scarf he was wearing to the army.
“The soldiers argued that donning a red scarf symbolised someone in combat and those quarrels led to the first killings that triggered retaliation from the local armed youth,” he said.
“That misunderstanding regenerated into armed confrontations between the armed youth and the force resulting in major losses for both sides.”
According to Gen Koang, the two days of day and night clashes left over 45 soldiers and 82 civilians dead.
Some 32 soldiers who were wounded were airlifted to the capital Juba for medical care, he added.