Twenty-seven people have been killed in South Sudan’s Central Equatoria state in tit-for-tat violence between cattle herders and members of a militia on the eve of a visit to the country by Pope Francis.
The incident happened on Thursday, according to a local official.
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The pope is set to arrive from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), hoping to revive a peace process aimed at ending a decade of conflict fought mostly on ethnic lines that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
A peace deal signed in 2018 by the main parties in a civil war from 2013 to 2018 has significantly reduced violence in South Sudan in recent years, but lower-level clashes between rival communities regularly flare up.
Violence broke out after fighters from a rebel group killed six people from a herding community. Herders retaliated on Thursday by killing 21 civilians in a nearby area, including five children and a pregnant woman, said Kajo-Keji county commissioner Phanuel Dumo.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who is accompanying the pope to South Sudan, said he was horrified by the latest killings.
“It is a story too often heard across South Sudan. I again appeal for a different way: for South Sudan to come together for a just peace,” he said on Twitter.
Pope Francis wrapped up an emotional visit to the DRC on Friday, after a meeting with Congolese bishops in Kinshasa and attending a farewell ceremony at the airport.
His plane was scheduled to take off at 09:40 GMT, heading for Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where it is expected to land at about 13:00 GMT.
The 86-year-old head of the Catholic Church, on his third visit to sub-Saharan Africa since his papacy began in 2013, is on a mission to help restore peace in the two countries ravaged by years of violence.
On Wednesday, he met victims of conflict in the eastern DRC who had witnessed the killings of close relatives and been subjected to sexual slavery, amputation and forced cannibalism.
The pope will be joined for the whole of his visit to South Sudan by Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and by the moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields.
Francis has wanted to visit the predominantly Christian country for years but each time planning for a trip began, it had to be postponed because of instability on the ground – and later, personal health issues.
In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, Francis knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in April 2019, urging them not to return to civil war.