By Katy Migiro
NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An upsurge in fighting has forced tens of thousands of South Sudanese into the bush where they have been shot, drowned and abducted, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Friday.
MSF evacuated its hospital in Leer, in South Sudan's northern oil-rich Unity State, on May 9 as government forces advanced on the rebel-controlled town.
It spoke by satellite phone to a member of staff who had fled to an island in a swamp with many residents of the town.
"Men with guns came on to the island and started shooting at the civilians," Paul Critchley, MSF's South Sudan head of mission said at a news conference.
Everyone ran into the water where they hid for about nine hours.
"When he could go back to the island, he gave the bodies of two young children that he had recovered from the water to their parents," Critchley said.
A woman was also abducted and her baby is being looked after by other people, he said.
The world's newest state, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011, was plunged into conflict nearly 18 months ago between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels allied with his former deputy, Riek Machar.
Renewed fighting has forced thousands to flee their homes in recent days and some 650,000 civilians are without access to aid, according to the U.N.'s Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan.
MSF estimated that half a million people in Unity State are hiding with no access to clean water, food or healthcare.
"They will be trying to live off wild fruits, susceptible to malaria, susceptible to diarrheal diseases, have little or no shelter," Critchley said.
Civilians and medical facilities have been targeted repeatedly in South Sudan's conflict, which has reopened ethnic faultlines between Kiir's Dinka people and Machar's forces, who are largely ethnic Nuer.
There has also been heavy fighting in Melut, close to a major oilfield in Upper Nile State. MSF staff ran to the United Nations base in the town on Tuesday, where they have been treating eight people who were shot.
"They were wounded as a result of stray bullets that came into the compound from outside," said MSF's deputy program manager for South Sudan, Johanna Van Peteghem.
With more than 20,000 people fleeing to U.N. bases in the northern towns of Malakal and Bentiu over the last few weeks, sites are becoming overcrowded and inter-communal tensions are escalating, MSF said.
The rainy season has begun in South Sudan, which increases the risk of diseases like cholera, malaria and diarrhea.
(Reporting by Katy Migiro; Editing by Ros Russell)