JUBA, Sudan – A top political leader in the emerging nation of Southern Sudan on Tuesday accused the northern government of backing southern rebels who killed 211 people.
Macabre video showed the bodies of victims being pulled from a muddy river and piled into a mass grave.
The attack by rebel leader George Athor happened last week, and officials then said 105 people — including 30 of Athor's men — died. But on Tuesday the toll was raised to 241, most of them civilians.
The victims were chased into a river by Athor's men, where some were shot and others drowned, said Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management Minister James Kok Ruea.
"It was a massacre because they are all civilians who did not have defenses," said Ruea. "Some of them were (southerners) who just returned from northern Sudan. Innocent children, women, and elderly people who could not defend themselves."
"I was the one who put them into a mass grave," Ruea said.
Pagan Amum, who heads the Southern Peoples' Liberation Movement, the political arm of Southern Sudan's ruling party, blamed the Khartoum government for arming and financing rebel leaders in the south. He said helicopters were used to transport weapons to Athor.
"As we emerge out of instability and war there are forces that have been subjugating Southern Sudan," Amum said. "These forces are still there. Today armed groups are being financed, being armed, being sent to Southern Sudan from the north. You know that George Athor who just caused the massacre in Fangak, his guns are coming from Khartoum."
The accusations come one month after Southern Sudan voted to secede from northern Sudan, a split that is scheduled to occur in July. Southern Sudan and the Khartoum-based north ended a more than two-decade civil war in 2005 in which more than 2 million people died.
Leaders in Southern Sudan toned down accusations against Khartoum in the run-up to the Jan. 9-15 independence referendum. Al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes in Darfur, has publicly accepted of the south's separation and said the north would help the south move forward.
Tuesday's accusations from Amum have the potential to shatter that period of apparent goodwill. Amum noted that good north-south relations are essential for regional stability.
Ruea, who is from Fangak County, traveled to the site of the attack last Friday, the day after it ended. Gruesome video footage shot by staff from his ministry show a community rescue effort, with men dragging bloated bodies out of a river where civilians had fled to escape the attack.
Survivors who were transported on Tuesday to a hospital in the southern capital of Juba told The Associated Press that Athor's men fired on people running into the river.
The video footage showed men and women dead from bullet wounds lying in a mass grave and on a roadside.
Among the dead were relatives of Gabriel Tanginye, a former Khartoum-sponsored southern militia leader who rejoined the southern army late last year. Aguer said their deaths raise fears of further violence.
Tanginye "has now traveled to Fangak, so far I heard he came with about 300 men," he said.
Despite the accusations leveled against Khartoum on Tuesday, Amum said the southern government's strategy is to reconcile with internal dissidents. But he said the Khartoum government has pursued a "divide and rule" strategy in Sudan that has pitted rival groups against each other.
The allegations by southern leaders against their "peace partner" — a phrase coined by Sudanese politicians after the 2005 north-south peace deal — echo the brutal history in Sudan's western region of Darfur.
In Darfur government-backed militias created havoc and burned villages while Sudanese army planes dropped bombs.
John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project, an initiative to end genocide that is active in Sudan, said the government in Khartoum has used militia leaders to undermine stability in Southern Sudan and in Darfur since 1989.
"George Athor was definitely provided support by the government of Sudan and Khartoum during the pre-referendum process and although we do not have a smoking gun right now for the continuation of that support, past practice would indicate the likelihood of such support," Prendergast said. "And it's precisely the same strategy of divide and destroy that the regime has used in Darfur to such destructive effect."
The Texas-sized Southern Sudan is full of weapons from decades of war, and long-standing grievances among southerners who turned against each other during the north-south war have not yet been addressed.
Athor, the rebel leader accused of last week's attacks, defected from his position in the southern army earlier this year to run for governor in Jonglei, the largest and most volatile of the south's 10 states. After losing the April vote, Athor launched a revolt against the southern government along with an unknown number of his troops.
Last year Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir offered amnesty to Athor and other men who had launched armed uprisings. On Jan. 5, four days before the referendum, Athor signed a cease-fire with the army, which he broke last week when his forces attacked the towns of Fangak and Dor in Jonglei state.
Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.