The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said in a statement that the fighting had stemmed from a Sunday ambush of the South Sudanese government troops near the country’s second largest city of Wau and had led to clashes the following day.
“The Mission mounted two patrols into Wau on Monday and said it had observed the bodies of 16 civilians in a hospital. There were ten people who had been injured,” the statement said.
Reports said at least 3,000 residents of Wau, mostly women and children, had sought shelter in a Catholic church, while another 84 took refuge at a UN protection site to escape the killings.
Wau is located in a region that has repeatedly changed hands between government troops and rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar since the country plunged into civil war in 2013.
The city is some 650 kilometers from the capital Juba.
UNMISS noted that troops, tanks and equipment from Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had been deployed to areas controlled by the rebels in the southwestern part of Wau last week.
South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, but descended into a bloody civil war in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup against him. The two sides then got involved in a cycle of retaliatory killings that have split the impoverished country along ethnic lines between the rival communities of Dinka and Nuer, killing thousands of people.
A peace agreement convinced Machar to return to Juba, but a new wave of fighting broke out again in the African country in July 2016.
Machar is currently in exile in South Africa after fleeing the new spate of violence. Numerous international attempts to reach a truce between the warring sides have failed.
The persisting conflict has so far killed tens of thousands of people, displaced millions of others from their homes, divided much of the population along ethnic lines and crippled agriculture. According to the United Nations, the impoverished country is also facing famine.