JUBA, Sudan, April 22 (Reuters) - An attack by southern Sudanese tribesmen on rival villages in which about 250 people may have been killed has raised concern that a dispute over cattle-rustling has erupted into open warfare.
Around 500 armed Murle tribesmen burned 16 Lou Nuer villages to the ground in a series of raids over the weekend.
Women and children were among the estimated 250 Lou dead, Akobo county commissioner Doyak Chol told Reuters.
U.N. official David Gressly said a death toll of more than 100 seemed credible.
Gressly, who is southern coordinator for the United Nations Mission in Sudan, said he was worried about the potential for a cycle of revenge attacks to take place.
“The violence can escalate to a new level,” he told a news conference.
The bloodshed appeared to be a reprisal for attacks on Murle villages by Lou Nuer in March that killed at least 453 people, most reported to be women and children.
In turn, that attack was in retribution for large scale theft of Lou cattle by the Murle in January.
The two communities have long been locked in a pattern of cattle-raiding violence which has also involved child abduction. But officials are concerned the conflict has shifted.
“We have seen attacks on civilian settlements, not just cattle raiding,” Gressly said. “It is a new dimension.”
Such violence could disrupt national elections currently planned for next February, he said.
The area is thought to have large oil reserves in a concession owned by French Total (TOTF.PA).
The southern army has not intervened to protect civilians in either this weekend’s attacks or during the March violence.
The deputy governor of Jonglei state, Hussein Mar Nyuot, said the army was under orders from southern President Salva Kiir to keep out of civilian problems.
“Our national army should not be involved with this,” Nyuot told Reuters.
The lack of action has been criticised by officials from both communities who said their areas lack adequate police to protect villagers.
Government attempts to disarm heavily armed areas after more than 20 years of north-south war have been patchy and at times violent when communities have fought back. (Editing by Alastair Sharp and Angus MacSwan)