South Sudan Nile ferry sinks with more than 200 dead

Andrew Harding explains why the Nile is such an important boundary for those fleeing the fighting

More than 200 civilians in South Sudan have drowned in a Nile ferry accident while fleeing fighting in the town of Malakal, an army spokesman has said.

He said women and children were among the victims in Sunday's disaster.

More than 350,000 people have been displaced by the fighting between the South Sudanese government and rebel forces, according to the UN.

Rebels say they have captured Malakal, which is the gateway to the oilfields of the Upper Nile region.

However, this was denied by an army spokesman, who said the rebels had been pushed back after heavy fighting in the city.

"The reports we have are of between 200 to 300 people, including women and children. The boat was overloaded," army spokesman Philip Aguer told the AFP news agency.

People gather on the banks of the White Nile in Malakal as a boat moves along the river. Photo: 12 January 2014 Malakal lies on the east bank of the River Nile

"They all drowned. They were fleeing the fighting that broke out again in Malakal," he added.

Malakal is located on the banks of the White Nile - just north of its confluence with the Sobat River.

Thousands of civilians have been trying to escape the clashes by crossing the river, but many say they simply cannot afford to pay for a boat, says the BBC's Andrew Harding in South Sudan.

One refugee, Akuch, told our correspondent that she had had to borrow as much as 150 Sudanese pounds (£40; $66) to cross the river.

Some 9,000 civilians have recently arrived at a UN base in Malakal, almost doubling the number of people seeking shelter there, our correspondent says.

Displaced South Sudanese women walk towards a UN base in Malakal. Photo: 13 January 2014 Some 19,000 people are now seeking shelter at a UN base in Malakal
South Sudan's government soldiers. Photo: 13 January 2014 Government troops are said to be advancing on the rebel-held town of Bor

Malakal has already changed hands several times since the conflict began last month.

In the south, government troops are believed to be advancing on Bor - the only major town previously in rebel hands.

Meanwhile, talks aimed at securing a ceasefire in South Sudan are currently taking place in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

The negotiations are being overseen by the East African regional bloc, Igad.

The violence erupted on 15 December between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and soldiers backing Riek Machar, his former vice-president.

President Kiir is a member of South Sudan's largest ethnic group, the Dinka, while Mr Machar is from the Nuer community - the country's second largest.

The conflict has seen reports of mass killings along ethnic lines even though both men have prominent supporters among their rival's community.

The UN estimates that more than 1,000 people have died since the conflict began on 15 December.

South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 after a long and bloody conflict, to become the world's newest state.

map Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
News graphic showing the ethnic groups of South Sudan Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Map showing the location of oil fields in South Sudan Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north
Map showing the geography of South Sudan The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Map showing access to water in South Sudan After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Map showing education levels in South Sudan Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Map showing food insecurity rates in South Sudan Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight - this compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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