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Malakal attack: What UN knew vs what it said

Original source: Radio Tamazuj

Malakal – UN peacekeepers in South Sudan fought directly with national army soldiers (SPLA) for three hours during an attack on the UN-protected Malakal IDP camp in February, according to an internal UNMISS timeline of the event.

The UN Secretary-General’s office has implied, but not stated directly, that government forces breached the UN base perimeter in an attack on 18 February. In a press statement on the day of the attack, Ban Ki-moon reminded the government of international law protecting UN compounds.

The violence at the UN protection camp at Malakal began on the evening of 17 February. More than 20 people were killed that night and the following day. At first, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) described the violence as a fight “between Shilluk and Dinka youths” who were battling each other with small arms, machetes and other weapons.

Later, as that view was challenged, including by unnamed UN officials in media reports who described the violence as an attack on the UN base by SPLA soldiers, UNMISS modified its story. In a press release dated 19 February, two days after the violence began, UNMISS clarified that the fighting had started among camp residents but it “was further compounded by shooting coming from outside the base into the PoC site — reportedly from armed men allegedly donning SPLA uniforms.”

“UN troops exchanged fire with them and eventually pushed them outside of the UN compound,” the Mission added.

The peacekeeping mission did not detail, however, that its forces actually battled the soldiers for several hours and that it had been observing SPLA soldiers in the vicinity of the base since the night before. Publicly, UNMISS was repeatedly vague about the identity of the attackers, whereas the internal report is for the most part unambiguous.

“The Secretary-General notes with concern the rising inter-communal tensions between the Dinka and Shilluk which precipitated this incident.” — UN HQ statement, 18 Feb. 2016

How it started

Malakal is historically the capital of Upper Nile State and was a diverse city inhabited by Nuers, Dinkas, Shilluks, Arabs and people of other ethnicities. But brutal violence in 2014 and 2015 left the city deserted as its population fled or took shelter at the UN ‘protection site’ on the outskirts of town.

Currently, the city is controlled by the SPLA loyal to President Salva Kiir, while most of the opposite bank of the river is occupied by the Shilluk militia led by General Johnson Olony.

Kiir in October 2015 decreed that the Shilluk-inhabited west bank of Upper Nile State should become its own state, West Nile State, under a Shilluk administration, while the east bank should become the new East Nile State under a predominantly Dinka administration.

Malakal became the seat of East Nile State, even though Shilluks had formed a significant part of Malakal’s pre-war population. Tensions rose in the camp in the days leading up to the attack over preparation by some of the Dinka population to leave the camp to Malakal.

Some Shilluk residents, who still feared to return to the SPLA-controlled city, saw this migration and the new ‘East Nile’ government as a hostile occupation of the city and Shilluk homes.

A scene from the Malakal POC site before the outbreak of violence in February 2016 (Credit: Radio Tamazuj)

As tensions over this rose, peacekeepers spotted SPLA soldiers on its perimeters at 18:00 hours on 17 February, according to the UNMISS internal timeline of events. UNMISS contacted the SPLA and asked them to withdraw. Thirty minutes later, UNMISS heard reports of fighting between Shilluk and Dinka within the camp, and deployed patrols.

At 22:30, shots were fired between sections of the camp, and grenades were reportedly also thrown. It is not clear exactly what sparked this initial violence.

UNMISS patrols chose not to use force, citing a fear of collateral damage inside the camp. At 23:30, more SPLA were spotted on the base’s eastern perimeter. A fire broke out in Sector 2 just before midnight. The UN sent in a fire patrol, but it was evacuated after being fired upon. Gunshots continued until 3 am.

Malakal IDP camp burns, 18 February 2016 (Credit: UNMISS/Radio Miraya)

Soldiers join the fight

Before dawn, Dinka camp residents breached the security perimeter and began leaving, aided by vehicles waiting outside to ferry them and their belongings to Malakal. As the sun rose, UNMISS forces saw a significant SPLA presence moving about outside the perimeter.

Fighting commenced again at 8 am, and at 11 it was reported that armed outsiders, “likely SPLA,” had entered into Sector 2 aided by the fleeing Dinka IDPs. Within 30 minutes, the soldiers opened a “huge volume of fire” toward the Shilluk section of the camp.

Around this time, the SPLA deployed a large force to the airport to tell UNMISS Rwandan forces there to return to their base. The Rwandan forces complied and pulled back.

By noon, a large fire engulfed Sector 2 and 3 which UNMISS was unable to contain. Large numbers of Shilluk camp residents fled from the protection site towards the peacekeepers’ base. As they fled, UNMISS now observed SPLA in the Shilluk areas of the camp attacking residents and burning homes.

At 1 pm on 18 February, UNMISS reported its first gunfight with the attackers. UNMISS continued to fight the SPLA inside the camp for the next three hours. A final push by Rwandan peacekeepers and armored vehicles (APCs) from about 3:45 to 4:00 p.m. eventually drove out the soldiers.

Photo: UN armoured personnel carriers (APCs) in Pibor, 6 March 2013 (UNMISS/Martine Perret)

Below is the full internal timeline of events and UNMISS action, re-formated but kept verbatim.

17th of February

1800 hours: Movement of armed SPLA soldiers observed on the eastern perimeter of UNMISS base

Action taken: Sector North commander along with SMLO and State Coordinator called for SPLA LNO and asked the SPLA soldiers to move away from UNMISS logbase.

1830 hours: Reports of occurrence of inter communal quarrel between Shilluks and Dinkas reported

Action taken: Sector North deployed the armoured QRF in support of FPU

2030 hours: POC camp patrol reported general situation to be calm

Action taken: QRF tasked to continue with patrolling

2230 Hrs First round of small arm bullets being fired from POC Sector 1 into POC Sector 2 (As was reported to the TOC by troops on ground)

Action taken:QRF was increase in strength and deployed all over the area between Sector 1 and Sector 2.

2245 hours: Exchange of fire got intense with few grenade being lobbed

Action taken:

  • QRF maintained its posture so as to not allow the IDPs to cross into each other’s area.
  • As fire was coming from the POC, exact location could not be determined for QRF to react.
  • Opening fire would have led to collateral damage.

2330 hours: Movement of SPLA soldiers was again observed onto the eastern perimeter of the base.

(No action reported)

2345 hours: One of the IDP camps in sector 2 caught fire (reasons not known) likely arson with aim to create panic.

Action taken:

  • Fire tender was immediately rushed to the spot escorted by armoured FP.
  • Fire was contained.
  • Firefighting party was fired upon and the fire truck was evacuated with great difficulty by the FP.

18th of February

0215 hours: Shilluk IDPs from Sector 4 moved into ETHBATT Coy location and Sector 1

(No action reported)

0300 hours: Exchange of fire ceased

(No action reported)

0445 hours: Dinka IDPs breached the security fence. Pickup trucks were seen picking their personal belongings and moving to Malakal town.

Action taken: QRF maintained its posture so as to not allow the IDPs to cross into each other’s area.

0630 hours

SPLA soldiers in large number were seen moving in area outside perimeter to the south of base.

Action taken: The security to the south was increased.

0800 Hrs Exchange of fire commenced between the POC 1 and POC 2

Action taken: QRF maintained its posture so as to not allow the IDPs to cross into each other’s area.

1100 Hrs A few armed attackers (likely SPLA soldiers) reportedly entered into the POC Sector 2. Entry was aided by movement of DINKA IDPs.

Action taken: QRF rushed to the spot to control the situation.

1130 hours: Huge volume of fire was opened from Sector 2 by the attackers.

Action taken: RWANBATT APCs and INDBATT APCs continued patrolling the area between the two sectors but the attackers were not visible to engage as they had good cover of tents and IDPs. Deterrence firing was carried out but the firing between two sectors did not stop.

1145 hours: Shilluk IDPs were also returning back the fire. Women and children started rushing into the UNMISS logbase.

Action taken: Exchange of fire was heavy and as firing was from within the POC camp, it restricted any pointed retaliation by UNMISS forces.

1145 hours: SPLA about a Coy strength deployed at the Malakal airport and told the RWANDA FP to return back to the base.

Action taken: RWANBATT initially refused but with overwhelming strength of SPLA took the decision of returning back to the base.

1200 hours Huge fire engulfed the tents in POC camp 2 and 3

Action taken: As fire was massive and with limited resources in hand the fire could not be contained.

The displaced are displaced again: Malakal PoC residents take shelter in a UNMISS logistics area as shelter engulfs their tents in the protection site (Credit: UNMISS)

1230 hours: Armed attackers continued firing into the POC sector 1.

Action taken: The Shilluk IDPs moved into the UNMISS base in large number.

1300 hours: Attackers were now seen in POC camp 1 also firing onto the IDPs and burning the tents. With thinning out of the IDPs from POC sector 1 the SPLA soldiers were being observed now.

Action taken: UNMISS forces exchanged fire with SPLA soldiers.

1400 hours: Attackers started burning all the tents in POC 1 and looting the camp.

Action taken: UNMISS forces intensified the exchange of fire.

1500 hours: Attackers started moving back towards POC sector 2.

Action taken: APC based forces pursued them out of Sector 1.

1545 hours: Attackers continued shooting at forces from Sector 2.

Action taken: RWANBATT APCs moved into the Sector 2 pushing the SPLA soldiers further east out of Sector 2.

1600 hours: Attackers moved out of UNMISS base but continued engaging the UNMISS forces.

Action taken: APC based forces intensified the fire and pushed the SPLA soldiers completely out of base. The attackers fled away with a few being seen hitching ride on pick up trucks.

1630 hours: Shilluk IDPs started sneaking into the POC sector 2 with intention to loot the items.

Action taken: UNMISS forces stated clearing the sector looking for any armed individual and asked Shilluk IDPs to return back to the base.

1700 hours: Situation got relatively calm.

(No action reported)

1730 hours: Humanitarians approached for assisting them in providing water and food.

Action taken: INDBATT provided the Shilluk IDPs with water facility and assisted the humanitarian with getting the food resources from the warehouse at BANFMU and distribute to the IDPs.

As of now: Situation calm with forces deployed all over the perimeter.

Aftermath of fires that swept through the Malakal protection camp on 17–18 February (Credit: IOM)

Categories: News, South Sudan, Upper Nile

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