JUBA, South Sudan — A theft of 750 cattle sparked a manhunt by security forces that devolved into an attack by those forces on a medical facility, where four medical staff and a patient were killed, officials said Thursday. More than 20 people died in total.
The feud began last weekend after raiders stole at least 750 cattle in Eastern Equatoria state, near the border with Kenya and Uganda, said Felix Otuduha, a state spokesman.
A force composed of wildlife officers, police and the army tried to pursue the raiders, but in an ensuing battle the raiders killed all the police and wildlife officers," Otuduha said. Nine security forces, five raiders and two civilians died in the clash, he said. The rustlers had retreated to a mountainous region, Otuduha said, which gave them the advantage of high ground.
On Monday, the state government – enraged by the cattle thefts and resulting deaths – deployed hundreds of soldiers to hunt down the raiders. But an official said those security forces instead indiscriminately shot and killed civilians and burned down houses and shops. They also attacked a hospital.
"A medical doctor was dragged out of a hospital and killed in front of the hospital. Another two medical staff were also killed ... and a patient was also killed. In the hospital alone four were killed before the soldiers set fire to the hospital," said David Nailo Mayo, a member of parliament.
Mayo said a final death toll isn't yet available because the conflict is ongoing. Much of the internal violence occurring in South Sudan takes place between rival tribes, which would explain why security forces might attack civilians or even a hospital.
Col. Philip Aguer, the spokesman of the SPLA, South Sudan's military, said army troops have been deployed to the area to stop the cattle thefts and ensure the safety of lives and property.
"If there is any accusation against the SPLA, the officers in the area will investigate how the concerned officers got involved in whatever happened," he said.