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Heavy fighting puts humanitarian aid and civilians at risk in Upper Nile

The town of Pagak is a stronghold for opposition forces in the Upper Nile region of South Sudan.

However, its grip on the area is under threat as government troops steadily advance towards the town, with forces approaching Maiwut, 25 kilometres north-west of Pagak.

The outbreak of heavy fighting risks cutting access to humanitarian assistance in the area with at least 25 aid workers evacuated in recent days because of the increasing insecurity. Civilian lives are also at risk with 5000 people, from north of Pagak, registering in the town as they pass through towards Ethiopia seeking refuge.

The Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), David Shearer, says he is “gravely concerned” about the situation and is urging the warring parties to end the violence.

“The hostilities should cease to allow people to go back to their homes. There is no reason for fighting in this area,” he said. “Irrespective of which side started it, and we’ve heard differing stories about that, we do not believe that an advance on Pagak is going to serve the interests of peace.”

The surge in violence near Pagak follows an Independence Day address by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir who said that “war is not an option” and that the continuation of violence “leads to the loss of innocent lives” as well as the destruction of property and consequential under-development of South Sudan.

Latest figures from the UN’s humanitarian agency, OCHA, suggest that 50 per cent of the population – about six million people – will need food aid this month.

David Shearer said he agreed with the President’s recent comments that agricultural production was vital to the wellbeing of local communities as well as the South Sudanese economy more broadly.

“The security situation in rural areas must improve dramatically so that people feel safe enough to return to the land and invest their time and money in planting crops,” he said.