JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - Heavily armed fighters have killed more than 200 people in raids on villages in South Sudan, where bloody tribal disputes over cattle are jeopardising peace efforts in the oil-rich region, officials said on Sunday.
The commissioner of Pibor County Akot M. Adikiu told Reuters he had seen more than 200 bodies, but had heard reports that hundreds more may have been killed in a string of attacks over the past two weeks.
The surrounding Jonglei State, where Malaysia's Petronas is searching for oil and France's Total owns a huge concession, has long been plagued by tribal violence, often sparked by disputes over livestock.
But ethnic fighting has escalated, fuelled by the huge supply of weapons left over from Sudan's two-decade north-south war that ended with a 2005 peace deal.
Africa's longest civil war also left painful divisions between ethnic communities that have frustrated efforts to bring peace to South Sudan, in the run up to national elections and a referendum on southern independence, both promised under the 2005 accord.
Scores of people have been killed at a time in one-off cattle attacks in South Sudan. But officials said the number of reported deaths in Pibor and the appearance of a coordinated campaign against a series of villages, was unusual.
"We believe about 453 people have been killed, based on the bodies and information from chiefs and members from villages," Adikiu said. "Many of the deaths are women and children."
He said at least 17 villages controlled by the Murle tribe were attacked from March 5 to 13 by armed members of the Lou Nuer tribe. The attacks were reportedly in retaliation for the theft of around 20,000 Lou Nuer cattle in January.
Adikiu said that about 6,000 people had also been displaced by the recent attacks and thousands of cattle were taken. Cattle are highly prized by southern pastoralists and represent wealth, status as well as stability in fraught times.
The head of South Sudan's U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs Andy Pendleton confirmed officers had received reports that a large number of people were killed in the fighting.
"The situation is rather alarming," he told Reuters. "Usually the fighting is between cattle-guarding combatants. But this time it's different. You also have people caught in the middle and they lost their lives."
U.N. officers have already made a quick visit to the area and are planning to send a full team in to assess humanitarian needs this week, he added.
Analysts have said the fighting could destabilise the south's delicate peace established by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
"The south's government needs to address these internal problems urgently or risk inheriting what some might even call a failed state in 2011," a researcher for Human Rights Watch, who asked not to be named, told Reuters, referring to the date of the south's promised independence referendum.
Efforts by south Sudan's semi-autonomous government to disarm communities have been patchy and in some cases have descended into bloody battles when civilians fight back.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)
For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/