Ethiopian troops on Saturday clashed with South Sudanese tribal militiamen along the border between the countries, killing dozens of fighters who allegedly had carried out a deadly raid into Ethiopia the day before.
The fighters, members of South Sudan’s Murle tribe, launched the attack on the rival Nuer tribe in Ethiopia’s western region of Gambella on Friday, killing 140 people and abducting dozens, including children, according to Ethiopia’s Communications MinisterGetachew Reda. Ethiopian troops responded to the raid on Saturday, killing at least 60 of the attackers, the minister said.
It was the worst violence in the border region since the South Sudan tribal conflict erupted more than two years ago, raising concern that it might spill over into Ethiopia and threaten the stability of one of Africa’s most promising economies.
The Murle tribesmen are closely allied with South Sudan President Salva Kiir’s ethnic Dinka people.
South Sudan Information Minister Michael Makuei denied any state involvement in the clashes. “We don’t condone such acts,” Mr. Makuei said. “We are ready to cooperate with our Ethiopian brothers to apprehend the perpetrators, but we remain a sovereign nation.”
“Our soldiers are pursuing the attackers; we reserve the right to follow them up inside South Sudan,” Mr. Reda told The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reda said Ethiopia would act to protect its “people and territorial integrity.” He declined to say whether Ethiopian troops had entered South Sudan in pursuit of the attackers.
Both tribes live in South Sudan’s oil-rich Jonglei and Upper Nile states, which have seen some of the heaviest combat in the two-year conflict. The fighting has killed more than 50,000 people and displaced nearly 2.5 million.
Ethiopia’s Gambella region hosts about 280,000 South Sudanese refugees, most of them from the Nuer tribe, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Murle and Nuer tribes have a long history of antagonism and have raided each other’s territory for generations over cattle, grazing lands and water rights.
At the time of the attack this weekend, rebel leader Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, was in the town of Gambella, a rebel spokesman said, and he is expected to fly to Juba on Monday to become vice president in a transitional South Sudan government whose formation aims to end the conflict.
An aid official said the attackers targeted food and cattle. The conflict in South Sudan which has raged on despite several cease-fire deals has worsened the food crisis in the country leaving nearly five million people food insecure according to U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.