Heavy gunfire erupts in Western Bahr el Ghazal’s Wau town amid reports of SPLA defections

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April 27, 2014 (JUBA) – Explosions and sustained heavy gunfire were heard in South Sudan’s western Bahr el Ghazal State capital of Wau, government officials and military sources said Sunday.

A military officer with knowledge of the situation told Sudan Tribune there had been shooting throughout Saturday night causing panic for civilians in town.

Eyewitnesses said sounds of heavy machine guns continue to be heard in Buseri, an outskirt south west of the town, despite attempts by the local command to avert the situation from developing into an ethnic killing following massive defection in the army

It remains unclear what sparked the fighting in the area which has witnessed relative calm since the conflict erupted in December last year in the country’s capital of Juba and spread to other parts of the country.

The state deputy governor confirmed the shooting but said the situation was under control. “There were shootings in the night here and there, which caused panic in the town but everything is okay now. Security organs are patrolling the area”, deputy governor Zachariah Garang said Sunday. There is no problem at the moment”, he added.

Garang attributed the gunfire to a defection within the army in the area.

“It was worrying yesterday when the population heard of defections within the army. Senior military officers have defected and fled into the bush. Some of them ran towards the direction of Abushaka in the west of Wau town. Others ran towards Aweil north of Wau," Garang told Sudan Tribune on Sunday, adding that he was still gathering the details.

The deputy governor said the state administration deployed joint patrols in the town to avoid ethnic-based killing adding that they are trying to “contain anger”.

“The objective of deploying joint patrols is to avert ethnic killing. So the priority was to contain the anger with the deployment of the security forces on the street”, he said.

Several military sources in Wau town confirmed defection of four army generals, claiming they had foiled the attack on town.

“Four Brigadier Generals have defected. They have gone with a huge force. They went with nearly a brigade. They wanted to launch an attack to capture the town on Friday night but this plot was foiled because they were not in control of heavy machine guns and had no access to weapons and ammunition stores. They only had small firearms”, a senior military officer told Sudan Tribune during an exclusive interview on Sunday.

He said the head of military police and the overall officer for administrative and officer affairs for the whole of Bahr el Ghazal region, comprising four states have defected. Other officers included an officer in charge of gubernatorial guard force and the head of administrative and finance at the army’s fifth division.

“All the Nuer officers and soldiers except the brigadier General who was recently wounded in Bentiu fighting have gone. The wounded officer is in the United Nations. He has now been joined by the wives of those who defected and fled”, said the officer.

Multiple eyewitnesses confirmed the shooting in the night but claimed it was carried out by the government troops and police force in the town to prevent unarmed members of the Nuer ethnic group from going into the United Nations mission base in the area.

“The security situation yesterday was tense and it remains tense. The shops in Sukjow and Wau town remained closed. There is limited movement in town as I speak to you. All the streets are controlled by the army and the police. This is because of the shooting that took place last night. There was heavy firing at the airport and all over in town. People did not sleep. We were praying for the morning to come. It was long night”, Jacob Bol Deng, a resident of Wau town said in an interview with Sudan Tribune.

Fear of uncertainty

Observers have expressed grave concerns that the unarmed civilians, largely members of Nuer ethnic risks being attacked and killed by the local population in their attempt to escape the area.

“My biggest fear now is that the angry youth in the local population, especially those whose relatives were killed in the states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile during this conflict fighting on the government side, may attack and kill the unarmed members of Nuer community. Our communities have been misled by the cause of this conflict and they will not differentiate between rebel fighters and those innocent Nuer community members running away for their lives. Actually those who have now fled acted out of fear of uncertainty. They did not intend to rebel but they feel they would be victimized and killed, just like it happened in Juba and Bor”, analyst told Sudan Tribune Sunday

Joe Contreras, head of media monitoring unit with public information Office of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) confirmed the incident in an interview with Sudan Tribune on Sunday, saying about 700 internally displaced persons were seeking entry to its base in the area.