Twelve held after South Sudanese rebels seize UN barge

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South Sudanese rebels seized a barge on the Nile River and are holding 12 contractors working for the United Nations, a UN spokesman in New York said Thursday.

The barge, operated by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), was in Kaka north of Malakal when it was stopped on Monday by more than 100 heavily armed men affiliated with a rebel group aligned with the country’s main opposition party, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

He noted that all UNMISS peacekeepers held had been “extracted” by helicopter and transported to Malakal.

The UN first reported that 20 peacekeepers were involved in the incident, but a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping department later corrected the number to 18.

The peacekeepers were from Bangladesh, a UN source said.

“The opposition has however kept in Kaka all 12 of the UNMISS contractors, the barge and some of the weaponry and equipment belonging to UNMISS peacekeepers,” Dujarric said.

The mission is “extremely concerned” that the national crew of the barge has not been released and that the barge has not been returned to the UN, the spokesman said.

“The mission demands that the UNMISS national contractors be released immediately, unharmed and unhurt,” he said.

A rebel spokesman told dpa earlier that barges traveling from Juba to Upper Nile State were stopped because they were carrying flags that “look confusing.”

“We are going to release the barges after confirmation from the UN,” Colonel William Gatjiat said.

The Sudan Tribune reported that the barge had already been released on the instructions of rebel leader Riek Machar.

A power struggle between South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Machar, his former deputy, turned violent mid-December 2013.

The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced 2 million and sparked ethnically based atrocities.

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