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Battle rages in South Sudan

Hundreds of people have been killed in South Sudan, with reports of summary executions and ethnically-targeted killings.

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Australian soldiers are working in South Sudan’s most troubled province of Jonglei, amid  fierce fighting and allegations of ethnic cleansing, as the world’s newest country collapses back into civil war.

Australian  Colonel Mike Chadwick, is the United Nation’s Senior Military Liaison Officer in Jonglei State, South Sudan. Based in Bor, Colonel Chadwick is not a peacekeeper, he liaises between the UN, the South Sudanese government and army. He said  the UN was managing under difficult circumstances, especially after three Indian peacekeepers were killed last week.  “Not killed in action in Bor. The incident was in Akobo including casualties,” he said. Then, on Saturday three US military planes carrying out evacuations of stranded citizens were fired upon in Bor.

Colonel Chadwick was to return to Melbourne to celebrate Christmas with his family but was refused leave after the trouble started last week. "I think I'm being divorced," he joked.

Australian Colonial Mike Chadwick (blue hat) escorts Toby Lanzer, UN assistant secretary-general in Juba, South Sudan on recent field trip to Pochalla, Jonglei province.

Australian Colonel Mike Chadwick (blue hat) escorts Toby Lanzer, UN assistant secretary-general in Juba, South Sudan on recent field trip to Pochalla, Jonglei province. Photo: Ilya Gridneff

More than 1000 people have died in the fighting in December. The UN estimates 17,000 villagers are now seeking refuge in their Jonglei base in Bor and 3000 citizens from countries including Australia,  Canada, Britain and Kenya are trapped. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has urged all Australians to immediately leave South Sudan.

Colonel Chadwick is one of 20 Australian Defence Force personnel,  forming Operation Aslan, the Australian contingent contributing to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, a 7000-strong peacekeeping force that was deployed when the country gained independence from Sudan in July 2011 after four decades of civil war.

This week Jonglei became the frontline in fighting between political and military rivals who represent two dominant tribes, the Lou Nuer and Dinka. Former vice president Riek Machar, who is from Jonglei and is a Lou Nuer, has long agitated for the country’s top job in a feud that dates back to 1991. The troubles have left President Salva Kiir, who represents the Dinka people, clinging to power. This week, US President Barack Obama hinted  at possible US intervention.

For Colonel Chadwick, it is not the first time he has found himself at the centre of a crisis  in  South Sudan. In July this year he feared the worst during a medi-vac operation of more than 200 wounded villagers when 6000 tribesmen, armed with Ak47s and spears, returned to their own village  from their bloody tit for tat rampage. "There were only 30 of us at the time and a ratio of about 200 to one that was probably when I was concerned,” he said.

Colonel Chadwick said in the middle of 6000 pumped up youth who were returning from running gun battles, the Nepalese troops he was working with did not flinch and they were able to protect the heli-pads. Scores of helicopters ferried the injured, mainly with gun shot wounds, to medical facilities in Bor. Not a shot was fired. “We just did not know what to expect,” he said. “It was very tense. It was a busy day but a lot of people that would have been dead were saved,” he said.

Australians from the navy, army, air force and Australian Federal Police contribute to the UN force and provide ‘mission support’ in aviation, logistics and engineering across South Sudan. “We are making a modest contribution,” Colonel Chadwick said. “But when the going gets tough and we are trying to work through an issue, time compressed and when the stakes are high, there is generally an Australian in every place that we link up to make it work,” he said.