Over 150,000 South Sudanese now sheltering in UN bases

Juba (AFP) - The number of South Sudanese civilians sheltering in UN bases has risen above 150,000 for the first time in 18 months of civil war, the United Nations said Tuesday.

A total of 153,769 civilians are now seeking safety behind the barbed wire of six peacekeeping bases of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

Many fled into the bases, which are spread across the country, as war broke out in December 2013 and have never left because they are too terrified to venture out for fear of being killed.

But tens of thousands more have entered the bases during an upsurge in fighting since April, taking those seeking shelter to the highest number yet. Over 10,000 have arrived in the past week alone, according to official figures released by UNMISS.

Over 28,000 are based in the capital Juba, where aid workers are trying to stamp out a cholera outbreak that has killed at least 32 people since cases were first recorded last month, including inside the UN base.

Another 91,500 are sheltering in Bentiu, capital of the northern battleground state of Unity, where a UN report last month described how South Sudan's army raped then burned girls alive inside their homes during a recent campaign marked by "new brutality and intensity".

Gunmen on Sunday shot and killed a civilian sheltering in the base, which the United Nations said on Tuesday may constitute a war crime.

More than 30,000 people are also in the UN base in Malakal, capital of the northeastern Upper Nile state.

- 2.5 million displaced -

The town has been left in ruins by intense fighting, swapping hands several times, with the government forces retaking it again on Monday after around a week under rebel control during which gunmen killed a civilian and wounded others inside the UN base.

The world's youngest nation marks on Thursday its fourth year since winning independence from north Sudan on July 9, 2011, with the UN listing South Sudan "lower in terms of human development than just about every other place on earth."

Civil war began when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings across the country that has split the poverty-stricken, landlocked country along ethnic lines.

Over 2.25 million have been forced from their homes, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday, releasing the latest figures of those affected.

Over 730,000 South Sudanese are refugees in neighbouring nations. Ethiopia hosts the majority, followed by Sudan, Uganda and Kenya.

A further 1.5 million are refugees in their own country, living in squalid displacement camps, in swamps and forests, or in villages considered safe only because they are deep inside their own ethnic fiefdoms.

"Political efforts so far have failed to bring an end to the conflict, and the outlook for the affected populations remains grim," UNHCR said in a statement, adding that some 180 refugees cross into Ethiopia each day.

"Recent weeks have seen an escalation in violence in Unity and Upper Nile states, with heavy fighting forcing tens of thousands of people to flee to the bush and swamplands."

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