JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - Five Sudanese tribesmen have been killed in a gunfight with soldiers this week in south Sudan, and 22 others died in tribal fighting, a senior state official said on Friday.
Attacks stemming from disputes over cattle have escalated in recent months in south Sudan between two rival ethnic groups in an area where livestock are prized by local people and represent wealth, status and stability in fraught times.
The violence dashed hopes for a lasting lull between the Murle and Lou Nuer ethnic groups after fighting that left more than 700 people dead earlier this year, mostly women and children.
Hussein Mar Nyuot, Deputy Governor of Jonglei state, said the fighting erupted after a member of the Murle ethnic group shot and wounded an armed soldier in Pibor in the Jonglei state, where French oil giant Total holds a large concession.
A gunbattle erupted after south Sudanese soldiers in nearby barracks became involved. Five members of the Murle tribe were killed. “There are high tensions (but) it is normal now,” Nyuot told Reuters.
Soldiers from the southern army were placed in Pibor last year as part of the government’s efforts to disarm the Murle, especially youths locked into a violent cycle of cattle raiding with other tribes.
International analysts and south Sudanese officials worry that the tribal violence may contribute to a divisive atmosphere ahead of national elections due in early 2010 and a referendum on southern independence in 2011.
The elections and referendum are key to the success of a fragile north-south peace deal.
Nyuot said that Murle cattle raiding attacks on Lou Nuer villages had also killed at least four children and injured dozens of people this week. That sparked a backlash by the Lou Nuer, and a number of members from the Murle tribe were also killed. He said the number of dead was at least 22.
The south’s President Salva Kiir told a chiefs’ conference on Monday that tribal clashes were being “engineered” by peace spoilers who want to show that the south cannot govern itself.
He added that elections planned for February and the referendum could intensify the abnormal pattern of tribal clashes. “The enemies of peace do not (want to) allow you to exercise your democratic right of self-determination,” he said.