, JUBA, Aug 18 – Clashes between rival militias broke out in south Sudan’s oil-rich Unity state on Tuesday, the latest to hit a region still recovering from two decades of civil war, a regional aid official said.
"Fighting broke out in the early hours," said Paul Dhel Gum, an official with the Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission run by the autonomous regional government of the south.
"It is still continuing now, and reports from people on the ground say there are between 300 to 350 militiamen involved."
The clashes were taking place around Mayom county in the west of Unity state, Gum said, an area close to Sudan’s north-south border and the flashpoint oil district of Abyei.
He said there were reports that the clashes may have spilled over into Gogrial county in adjoining Warrap state.
The reports could not immediately be confirmed.
Gum said the gunmen from the Nuer ethnic group were armed with automatic weapons and heavy machine guns. It was not clear who else was involved in the fighting.
"We have no details of casualties as yet because the fighting is still continuing," said Gum. "But the fighting is serious, so dead are expected."
The south has suffered a string of deadly clashes in recent months.
More than 2,000 people have died and at least 250,000 been displaced by fighting in the south this year, with UN officials warning that the rate of violent deaths now surpasses that in Darfur.
The latest bloodshed has rattled the 2005 peace deal that ended the civil war between the mainly Christian and animist south, and the Muslim north, a conflict that left 1.5 million people dead and more than four million homeless.
Southern officials have accused their former civil war foes of fomenting the violence, a charge dismissed by the Khartoum government.