NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Six aid workers were ambushed and killed in South Sudan, the deadliest attack on humanitarian workers since the East African nation's civil war began in 2013.
The attack took place Saturday on the road from Juba, the capital, to Pibor, where there have been recent reports of fighting, said Eugene Owusu, the top U.N. humanitarian official in South Sudan in a statement issued Sunday. He did not identify the nationalities of the aid workers or their organization.
"At a time when humanitarian needs have reached unprecedented levels, it is entirely unacceptable that those who are trying to help are being attacked and killed," said Owusu.
The ambush is the latest of several attacks on aid workers in South Sudan, which is one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. At least 12 aid workers have been killed so far this year and 79 have been killed since civil war began in South Sudan in 2013, said the statement.
Famine has been declared in two counties in South Sudan where 1 million people are on the brink of starvation and there is also a cholera outbreak in parts of the country. But aid organizations responding to both famine and the cholera outbreak have been attacked by armed forces, according to the U.N.
The ambush came the day that South Sudan's government declared a unilateral cease-fire and granted amnesty to armed groups who renounce violence.
South Sudan's government agreed to issue the cease-fire in response to pressure from East African countries during a regional summit in Nairobi, according to a joint statement after the meeting over the weekend.
The cease-fire and amnesty was immediately rejected by Mabior Garang, a spokesman for the opposition SPLM-IO party, who called it "silly" and a "non-starter."
"South Sudan's government usually declares cease-fires as a public relations gimmick or while under extreme external pressure to do so," said Alan Boswell, a researcher on South Sudan. "Food deprivation is an extremely effective government tool to weaken, depopulate, and demoralize opposition areas."
East African nations have not succeeded in playing a constructive role to encourage an end to South Sudan's civil war. Sudan and Uganda continue to be key entry points for weapons into South Sudan, according to a U.N. panel of experts report obtained by the Associated Press. A peace agreement signed in 2015 has not stopped the fighting and last week six U.S. senators called for negotiations for a new peace agreement.
"Whatever chance the (peace) agreement had is being squandered by the region and their inability to confront Kiir's government," a diplomat involved in monitoring South Sudan's peace deal told AP. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity for safety from government security forces.
South Sudan is now Africa's largest refugee crisis and more than 1.6 million people have fled the country.