Thousands of villagers in South Sudan hid in the bush on Monday, waiting for UN and government troops to stop a cattle vendetta which officials fear may have left scores of people dead over the weekend.
A column of some 6 000 armed youths from the Lou Nuer tribe marched on the remote town of Pibor in the troubled Jonglei state, home to the rival Murle people, who they blame for cattle raiding and have vowed to exterminate.
They burned thatched huts and looted a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontierès, the worst flare-up in a dispute that has left more than 1 000 dead in recent months and threatened to destabilise the world's newest country.
"The situation is tense as the Lou Nuer are still around Pibor," said Jonglei state information minister Isaac Ajiba, adding army reinforcements were still on their way to the remote settlement.
"They [the army] are yet to arrive but we hope to have the reinforcements there soon ... We have reports of several casualties but at present the exact numbers are not verified," Ajiba added.
Newly independent South Sudan was left in ruins by decades of war with northern Sudanese forces, who fuelled conflict by backing proxy militia forces across the south, often exacerbating historical enmities between rival groups.
A group calling itself the Nuer Youth White Army issued a statement on December 26 vowing to "wipe out the entire Murle tribe ... as the only solution to guarantee long-term security of Nuer cattle."
'Major tragedy' The government and the UN -- which has warned the violence could lead to a "major tragedy" -- were beefing up their forces in the area.
"We are moving in a big number of forces from the army and from the police to the area ... to stop what is happening," South Sudan President Salva Kiir said in a New Year's Day address.