JUBA - Several people were wounded in South Sudan Thursday after gunmen attacked civilians sheltering inside a UN peacekeeping base in the war-ravaged town of Bor, the UN said.
The top UN aid official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said he was "outraged" by what he said was an "attack of armed youth in Bor on civilians seeking protection".
Almost 5,000 civilians are sheltering inside the fortified base of the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) in the town, one of the most bitterly contested regions in the four-month-long conflict in the world's newest nation.
The civilians fled into the base weeks ago amid brutal ethnic massacres.
Mayor Nhial Majok said at least 14 people were wounded, but added that the number could be more.
"Local youth were demonstrating ... there was shooting of guns," Majok told AFP, adding that at least 14 young men had been seen with gunshot wounds.
Majok said the demonstrators had clashed with peacekeepers inside the base, but it was not immediately clear who had fired the shots.
"There were clashes between the UNMISS force and local youth here ... some of the youth were armed," Majok said.
Information Minister Michael Makuei said that a "huge number" of gunmen, seeking revenge for the rebel capture of the oil-town of Bentiu two days ago, overwhelmed government forces in a bid to slaughter the terrified and trapped civilians.
"UN forces intervened, and they managed to bring the situation under control," Makuei said.
The conflict in South Sudan has left thousands dead and forced around a million people to flee their homes since fighting broke out on December 15 in the capital Juba before spreading to other states in the oil-rich nation.
Bor town, capital of Jonglei state and some 200 kilometres (120 miles) north of the capital Juba, has swapped hands several times during the conflict.
"We will not be deterred," Lanzer added. Clashes in Bor echo an attack by gunmen in December on a UN base in Akobo, also in Jonglei, killing at least 11 civilians sheltering there and two Indian UN peacekeepers.
- Famine warnings -
Over 67,000 civilians across the country are sheltering inside UN bases for protection from ethnic attacks, with heavy fighting ongoing as the rebels say they are targeting key oil fields.
On Thursday, the army said it was trying to wrest back control of Bentiu from fighters loyal to rebel chief Riek Machar.
"Bentiu is still under the hands of the rebels but we are closing in," army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP. "There is still fighting."
UN peacekeepers reported dozens of corpses littering the streets of Bentiu, state capital of oil-producing Unity, which rebels had previously seized in December at the beginning of the conflict, but were chased out a month later.
The fighting is between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and mutinous troops who sided with Machar, who was sacked as vice-president in 2013.
The conflict has taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir's Dinka tribe against militia forces from Machar's Nuer people.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned that more than one million people were at risk of famine in the troubled country.
Over 3.7 million people are in dire need of food aid, many of them being forced to eat "famine foods" such as grasses and leaves, the UN children's agency UNICEF said Thursday, as it flew in its fourth cargo airplane loaded with special therapeutic food for malnourished children.
"Worse is yet to come," UNICEF chief in South Sudan Jonathan Veitch said in a statement.
"If conflict continues, and farmers miss the planting season, we will see child malnutrition on a scale never before experienced here."