Some 200 people fleeing warfare died after a boat crossing the Nile River sank, a South Sudanese military official said Tuesday, as fighting between rebels and government forces moved closer to the national capital.
Warfare in the world's newest state has displaced more than 400,000 people since mid-December, with the front lines constantly shifting as loyalist troops and renegade forces gain and lose territory in battles often waged along ethnic lines.
Lt. Col. Philip Aguer, the South Sudanese military spokesman, said there was fighting about 70 kilometres (45 miles) north of the South Sudanese capital of Juba.
As control of certain regions has changed, tens of thousands of residents have fled their homes to escape fighting that often pits the Dinka ethnic group of President Salva Kiir against the Nuer group of Riek Machar, the former vice-president who now commands renegade forces. A boat on the Nile — fleeing the violence in Upper Nile State and carrying mostly women and children— sank, killing at least 200 people, Aguer said.
The violence has displaced 413,000 people, including more than 73,000 who sought refuge in neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations.
Troops from neighbouring Uganda appear to be actively fighting on behalf of President Salva Kiir, who is reportedly seeking the long-term commitment of Ugandan troops in the fight against renegade forces.
In Ethiopia, where peace talks are taking place, a spokesman for the rebels, former South Sudan Brig. Gen. Lul Ruai Kong, said Ugandan helicopters and fighter jets are bombing rebel positions.
Another pro-rebel official, Gideon Gatpan Thaor, said fighters described being hit with a smoky weapon that burns, possibly white phosphorous.
Uganda's military denies its forces are already involved in active combat but admit that is where they are headed following the rebels' threat to take Juba, where fighting erupted on Dec. 15 before it spread across the oil-producing East African country.