War-torn South Sudan law passed limiting foreign aid workers

Doctors Without Borders said this week it had evacuated all its international staff from a hospital in Leer, South Sudan, amid rising violence (AFP Photo/Nichole Sobecki) (AFP)

Juba (AFP) - Aid-dependent, war-torn South Sudan has passed a law forcing aid agencies to ensure no more than a fifth of their staff are foreigners, the president's spokesman said Wednesday.

After 17 months of war, over half of the country's 12 million people are in need of aid, with 2.5 million people facing severe food insecurity, according to the UN.

The Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Bill was passed by parliament but must still be signed by President Salva Kiir.

"The NGO bill was passed and it is with the committee, and after that it will come to the president," Ateny Wek Ateny, spokesman in the president's office, told AFP Wednesday.

"The NGO bill is to regulate the NGOs, international and local."

South Sudan suffers from a major shortage of skilled workers, with only around a quarter of the population being able to read and write.

South Sudan's NGO Forum, an umbrella body of aid agencies, warned the bill could "hinder their ability to serve South Sudanese people at a time when needs are escalating due to the ongoing conflict."

The past month has seen one of the heaviest government offensives in the war, with gunmen raping girls, torching towns and looting aid supplies.

- 'Potentially catastrophic effects' -

UN aid chief in South Sudan Toby Lanzer on Wednesday said the number of civilians left without "life-saving aid" in the northern battleground state of Unity had risen to 500,000, after the UN and aid agencies pulled out due to a surge in fighting.

The NGO Forum said aid workers were already facing "increasing incidents of harassment and violence" against them.

The NGO Bill had "enormous implications for the ongoing humanitarian response", the forum added, warning it could "have potentially catastrophic effects for the large amounts of the South Sudanese population that rely on NGOs to provide basic services and life saving aid."

Last September, a government statement ordered all foreign workers, including aid agency staff, to be replaced by South Sudanese citizens. The government reversed the policy announcement a day later.

South Sudan's civil war began in December 2013 and has been characterised by ethnically-driven massacres, rape and attacks on civilians and medical facilities.

The violence, which has escalated into an ethnic conflict involving multiple armed groups, has killed tens of thousands of people in the world's youngest nation, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011.

Government forces are now pushing towards the opposition-held town of Leer. The area, which the troops have surrounded, is home to some of the country's once lucrative oil fields.

African Union Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma warned late Tuesday the nation was facing a "catastrophic humanitarian situation" with the "loss of countless human lives and untold suffering."

Peace talks in neighbouring Ethiopia have so far failed to reach any lasting agreement, or even an effective ceasefire.