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UN spokesperson Joseph Contreras said that unknown fighters used rocket-propelled grenades to shell the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) camp in Bor, the capital of Jonglei, before storming it and firing at residents.
But top UN representative in South Sudan Toby Lanzer told Agent France Presse on Friday that 350 militia members stormed the camp and began killing refugees before peacekeepers returned fire.
“Forty-eight bodies, including children, women, men, have been recovered from inside the base. The bodies of 10 attackers have been found outside the base,” Lanzer said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon condemned the attack and called it a “serious escalation”.
“The Secretary-General reminds all parties that any attack on United Nations Peacekeepers is unacceptable and constitutes a war crime,” a UN statement said.
The UN has enhanced security in a number of other refugee camps sheltering over 60,000 people, including thousands of children.
Despite the presence of some 8,000 UN peacekeepers in South Sudan, at least a million people have fled their homes since the conflict began.
The UN fears that more than three million people may be at risk of starvation.
On Friday, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) issued an urgent appeal for monies saying that it had received less than $5 million to deal with hunger and famine in South Sudan; it says it needs another $38 million.
UNICEF data shows that up to 50,000 children will die of starvation this year and some 250,000 will be afflicted with severe malnutrition if help is not immediately provided.
The security situation in South Sudan began to deteriorate on December 15 when President Salva Kiir accused his former Vice-President (and now greatest rival) Riek Machar of masterminding a coup attempt.
Some reports said that members of the Presidential Guard loyal to Machar engaged in a gun battle with security forces supporting Kir.
Hostilities erupted when other supporters of the two men, from rival tribes, clashed in the capital Juba, which has since been stabilised by the South Sudan Army loyal to Kiir.
By February, fighting had spread to over 30 towns throughout South Sudan.