NAIROBI, Kenya — At least 81 people were killed and dozens others injured in South Sudan over the weekend as an operation to seize weapons from civilians got underway, the authorities and a network of civil society organizations said on Tuesday.
The clashes showed how the world’s youngest nation has continued to grapple with deadly violence as it tries to emerge from a punishing civil war.
The efforts to disarm communities in South Sudan is an attempt by the authorities to tackle insecurity and stem retaliatory attacks in a country fractured along ethnic lines. But aid groups had cautioned that the “top down” approach, instigated by a government viewed with suspicion by many in the country, was likely to fuel clashes.
The warnings proved prescient. Around 55 members of the security forces and 26 civilians were killed in separate attacks that took place in the county of Tonj East in the north-central state of Warrap, Maj. Gen. Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for the South Sudanese Army, said.
Without providing further details, General Koang said the clashes had been prompted by a civilian “resisting disciplinary measures” taken against him by security forces in the area.
But Geoffrey L. Duke, director of the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms, an advocacy group based in the capital, Juba, said a dispute had arisen between soldiers and a number of civilians after a young man was detained.
When the young man tried to escape, he was shot in the back, Mr. Duke said, and that fueled an attack on the soldiers’ post on Saturday night. That attack was repulsed by security forces but an even bigger assault was mounted on Sunday, he added.
General Koang confirmed the dual attacks and said 27 soldiers had been wounded and airlifted to Juba for treatment.
Mr. Duke put the total number of civilians and soldiers wounded at 60.
During the fighting, a market in the nearby town of Romich was looted and shops burned, while many women and children fled in fear of their lives, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan said in a statement to The New York Times.
The violence comes weeks after President Salva Kiir announced the start of the extensive disarmament effort. The process was criticized as “hasty” by advocacy groups, which said the government’s approach risked provoking confrontations with the security forces.
“We warned of possible clashes between disarmament forces and civilians, and this is exactly what happened,” Mr. Duke said in a phone interview, noting that some communities might be hesitant to give up their weapons for fear of being left vulnerable to attacks. “Sadly, a big number of people lost their lives.”
The latest violence comes as South Sudan’s unity government, which was formed in February, struggles to bring peace and stability. The civil war began in 2013 and was mainly fought between Mr. Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group and the Nuer ethnic group of his rival, Riek Machar, who is now the first vice president. The fighting cost more than 400,000 lives and displaced 4.3 million people.
In addition, at least 6.5 million people in South Sudan, or about 55 percent of the population, face severe food insecurity, which is now exacerbated by swarms of desert locusts ravaging crops across East Africa.
Intercommunal violence — including cattle rustling, disputes over boundaries and revenge cycles — is rife, including in the Tonj East area where the latest clashes happened. In May and June, hundreds of people were killed in violence in another state, Jonglei.
The situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected at least 2,470 people and killed 47 in South Sudan. Aid agencies have said the outbreak has restricted their ability to respond to the deadly violence across the country.
The government’s disarmament efforts always looked complicated in a country awash in weapons after the civil war. In any case, many communities, particularly politically connected ones, are able to quickly rearm, said Alan Boswell, a senior analyst for South Sudan at the International Crisis Group.
“Disarmament in South Sudan resembles an abusive counterinsurgency operation, not an orderly collection of arms, which the local militias often resist giving up,” Mr. Boswell said. Because the government lacks much “political legitimacy or authority” in many parts of the country, he added, it “relies on violence that often deepens the crisis.”
On Tuesday, General Koang said calm had been restored in Tonj East, with local chiefs and lawmakers helping stabilize the situation. Two soldiers involved in the initial clashes were detained for further investigations, he said. The military has also appealed to local leaders to identify and help apprehend those who started the attacks.
Despite “this temporary setback,” General Koang added, “disarmament will continue.”