JUBA Aid agencies working in South Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the world, are under regular threat from members of the security services who beat or arrest them or commandeer their equipment, the United Nations said on Monday.
South Sudan has been struggling to reform its bloated security services since it split from Sudan in 2011 after a long civil war that has left it awash with weapons.
Human rights groups regularly accuse South Sudan's army, an assortment of poorly-trained former guerrilla fighters known as the SPLA, of abuses against civilians.
Vincent Lelei, country head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the number of incidents hampering the work of aid agencies had jumped almost 50 percent last year.
South Sudan is at the bottom of almost every development index and its government relies heavily on the United Nations and other aid agencies to provide healthcare, food, education and infrastructure.
"We received at least 61 reports of humanitarian workers who were beaten while doing their work, many of them by state security forces," Lelei told Reuters in an interview.
He said 78 aid workers had been arbitrarily detained, then released, in 2012 and that 79 vehicles had been seized by the army or other armed groups.
In addition, daunting bureaucracy impedes the agencies' daily work and delays visas and work permits, Lelei said.
According to a report by the U.N. secretary general, armed men in military uniforms have also occupied and looted schools.
Peter Lam Both, chairman of the government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, said South Sudan was a new country and "people are not well versed in how to conduct business in ways that (the international community) or I would understand".
He said the government was working on a bill to govern the aid sector and attempting to advertise existing legal protection for aid workers.
South Sudan has an average life expectancy of only 42 and only a quarter of adults can read.
In 2012 it received humanitarian assistance worth over $700 million (446 million pounds), some of it to provide food, shelter, water and medical care to over 155,000 South Sudanese who returned from Sudan and 212,000 refugees, mostly fleeing conflicts in Sudan.
This year, the U.N. World Food Program plans to provide food aid to over 2.7 million people, almost a quarter of South Sudan's population.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)