President Barack Obama declared the government of South Sudan eligible to receive defense assistance from the United States after more than 3,000 people were killed in a major ethnic clash in that country amid rising tension with the government in Khartoum.
A day after Obama made the announcement, officials in eastern Jonglei State’s Pibor County said Saturday that over 3,000 members of the Murle tribe were killed in last week’s revenge attack by the Luo Nuer ethnic group, according to the Sudan Tribune.
The ethnic unrest could make the largely animist and Christian South Sudan more vulnerable against the Arab-Muslim-dominated North Sudan, from which it seceded last year. South Sudan lacks an air defense system and has had alleged air strikes into its territories by the North.
President Obama on Friday said the ability to provide defense materials and services to South Sudan was in the American national interest and could promote peace in East Africa. The United States has had troubled relations with North Sudan over human rights violations in Darfur.
The Darfur region in western Sudan, which has been in a gory civil war since February 2003 and has seen the killing of over 400,000 people, remains part of North Sudan.
After southerners decided almost unanimously in last year’s referendum that they wanted to secede from North Sudan, Khartoum recognized the new state. However, tensions between the two neighbors remain high amid counter allegations that each side supports rebel groups for a proxy war. The two nations are yet to resolve many issues, including border demarcation and oil revenues.
Before last week’s violence, over 1,000 people had been killed and over 350,000 displaced in 2011.
Humanitarian agencies have stepped up rescue and relief efforts in Jonglei as thousands are hiding in jungles without food, clean water or shelter. It is estimated that up to 100,000 people have been displaced in the violence.
“The Government of South Sudan has declared Jonglei a disaster zone and asked humanitarian agencies to accelerate life-saving assistance. We’re responding to that call,” South Sudan’s U.N. coordinator Lise Grande said in a statement Saturday. “This emergency operation is going to be one of the most complex and expensive in South Sudan since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005,” Grande said. “With the exception of Boma [town], the areas we need to access are extremely remote and can only be reached by air.”
Fighting between the Murle and Luo pastoral tribal groups has reportedly escalated since the country gained independence from Sudan in July 2011. Ethnic tensions in the region have flared as tribes fight over grazing lands and water rights, leading to cattle raids and the abduction of women and children, local media report.