A road ambush blamed on South Sudanese rebels left 21 people dead over the weekend, police said Monday, as the U.N. warned of a surge of violence in the African nation that Japan hopes to use as a test-case for enhanced Self-Defense Force missions.
The ambush comes as Japan hopes to give Self-Defense Forces members stationed in the African nation new, potentially risky responsibilities that would allow troops to use firearms beyond purely self-defense scenarios — a move that was considered unconstitutional until new security legislation came into effect in March.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada visited Juba, the South Sudanese capital, over the weekend, claiming that security in the city “appeared calm.” The deadly ambush reportedly took place just 100 kilometers from Juba, where the Ground Self-Defense Force unit is currently stationed for peacekeeping operations.
Police spokesman Dominant Kawcgwok said a group of mostly women and children — fleeing violence further north — were traveling in a truck between Juba and the southern city of Yei when it “fell into ambush.”
“We lost something like 21 people,” and another 20 were wounded, he said.
The government has blamed the attack on rebel forces supporting former Vice President Riek Machar, who fled to Khartoum after fighting broke out in Juba in July, according to local media.
In another incident Monday, three passenger buses traveling between Juba and the Ugandan capital of Kampala were attacked by unknown gunmen, Kawcgwok said.
However Ugandan police spokesman Felix Kaweesa, who confirmed the incident, said some passengers had been abducted.
“The gunmen shot and burned one of the buses, they looted the buses and abducted several people,” Kaweesa said Monday.
“We are yet to confirm if there are any deaths during the attack,” he said.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said in a statement it had received “deeply disturbing reports of horrific violence” against civilians in Yei, some 150 km southwest of Juba, near the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
UNMISS “is extremely concerned by the continuing deterioration of the security situation in Yei, Central Equatoria, where the Mission continues to be denied access,” read the statement.
The U.N. refugee agency said last month that some 100,000 people were trapped in Yei after government troops surrounded the area.
In a joint statement, the European Union, Norway, the United States and Britain, together with Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda last week said they were “deeply concerned” about fighting in Yei, Wau (northwest), Bentiu (north), and Nassir (northeast).
South Sudan, which gained independence in July 2011, descended into war just 2½ years later when President Salva Kiir in December 2013 accused his former deputy Machar of plotting a coup.
Numerous attempts to shore up a fragile truce have failed, and in a major setback to peace efforts, fierce clashes erupted in Juba on July 8 this year between Kiir’s guards and troops loyal to Machar.
Since the fresh violence in July, more than 200,000 people have fled South Sudan, sending the number of refugees from the war-scarred nation past the 1 million mark, according to the UNHCR.
In a further blow to peace hopes, Machar last month urged “a popular armed resistance” against his rival Salva Kiir’s government.