Five killed in S.Sudan gun battles in UN base sheltering civilians

Juba (AFP) - Gunmen in South Sudan opened fire on civilians sheltering inside a United Nations base killing at least five people, the UN said Thursday, the latest in a string of atrocities in the war-torn nation.

Gunfire broke out in the base in Malakal in the northeast Upper Nile region on Wednesday night, with clashes continuing on Thursday morning.

The UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said five people had been killed and some 30 wounded, according to initial reports, with peacekeepers firing tear gas to break up crowds in the crowded camp.

"Violence involving the use of small arms, machetes and other weapons broke out," UNMISS said in a statement.

Residents gave a higher toll.

Over 47,700 people live inside the Malakal base, among almost 200,000 civilians who have sought shelter behind the razor wire fences of eight UN bases across the country since civil war began in late 2013. No weapons are allowed on the bases.

Resident Jack Nhial, speaking from inside the UN base, said at least 12 people had been killed.

"They used Kalashnikovs and machine guns... the situation is still tense," Nhial said, adding the peacekeepers were now patrolling the base in tanks.

Community leader Deng Amum, told Juba's Eye Radio that at least five people had been killed and 38 wounded in the battles. Rebels also reported the shooting, but the numbers killed could not be independently confirmed.

- 'Callous and cowardly' -

It was not immediately clear who the gunmen were. Malakal is in government control, but frontlines with rebel areas are close by.

In the past, the UN has said attacks on its bases in South Sudan may constitute a war crime.

Veteran opposition politician Lam Akol, who comes from Malakal in the northeastern Upper Nile state, condemned what he called the "callous and cowardly attack on innocent unarmed civilians."

The UN mission has more than 12,000 peacekeepers with half of them deployed solely to protect the civilians in their bases.

In April 2014, gunmen killed at least 48 civilians when they opened fire on terrified civilians inside a UN base in the town of Bor. At least 10 attackers were also killed when UN troops fought back.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and over two million forced from their homes since the war began, pushing the world's youngest nation to the brink of famine.

Civil war erupted in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings that have split the poverty-stricken, landlocked country along ethnic lines.

Earlier this month Kiir named exiled rebel chief Machar as vice-president, as part of a repeatedly broken August peace deal.

Machar has yet to return to take up the post and fighting continues, with the conflict now involving multiple militia forces driven by local agendas or revenge, who pay little heed to paper peace deals.

Both the government and rebel sides have been accused of perpetrating ethnic massacres, recruiting and killing children and carrying out widespread rape, torture and forced displacement of populations to "cleanse" areas of their opponents.

Over 2.8 million people need aid, almost a quarter of the country, while in war zone northern areas 40,00 are being starved to death with aid blocked amid violence.