At least 200 South Sudanese civilians have drowned in a ferry accident while fleeing fresh fighting between government forces and rebels, the army said.
Army spokesman Philip Aguer said yesterday the disaster occurred when the overloaded boat, packed with women and children escaping the northern oil city of Malakal, capsized in the White Nile river.
"The reports we have are of between 200 to 300 people, including women and children. The boat was overloaded," he said. "They all drowned."
Aguer said the tragedy happened yesterday, although local media reported it occurred overnight on Sunday.
The disaster is one of the worst incidents to have been reported from the war-torn country, which has been wracked by conflict for a month following a clash between rival army units loyal to either President Salva Kiir or his former vice president Riek Machar. According to the United Nations, about 400,000 civilians have fled their homes over the past month, many of them escaping a wave of ethnic violence. Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed in the fighting, aid sources and analysts say.
The army spokesman meanwhile reported that battles were raging in several areas of the country, signalling that the government's recapture of Bentiu, another key oil city in the north, had failed to crush the rebels.
Heavy fighting was reported in Malakal, state capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state, as rebel forces staged a fresh attack to seize the town, which has already changed hands twice since the conflict began.
"There is fighting anew in and around Malakal," United Nations aid chief for South Sudan Toby Lanzer said, adding that the UN peacekeeping base had been swamped with almost double the number of people seeking shelter, rising from 10,000 to 19,000.