Aid agencies withdraw foreign staff from town in South Sudan

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JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Two global aid agencies Saturday evacuated their international staff from a part of war-torn South Sudan fearing violence as government troops launch an offensive against rebels.

Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross both said they withdrew their international staff from the rebel-held town of Leer in the south of oil-rich Unity State. Doctors Without Borders is "gravely concerned about an imminent attack" on Leer and has been forced to halt all their medical services at Leer hospital, it said in a statement.

Government troops are retaliating against rebel attacks, said South Sudanese military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer. He said they are pursuing the rebels south of Bentiu, the capital of Unity State.

Some 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes due to fighting over the last week in the south of Unity State, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan Toby Lanzer said Friday.

Leer is the hometown of South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar. South Sudan descended into conflict in mid-December 2013 when troops loyal to former vice president Machar clashed with those loyal to President Salva Kiir after months of political tension between the two leaders. Tens of thousands of people have died and 2 million have been displaced since the conflict began, according to the U.N.

In January 2014, troops allied to the government swept through Leer and devastated the town, leaving behind dead civilians and forcing aid workers and civilians to flee into swamps to survive.

"We must sound the alarm on the grim situation in southern Unity State," said Pete Buth, deputy operations director for Doctors Without Borders. "We cannot stand by and watch as civilians and medical facilities are attacked again."

"Today, we withdraw again with a heavy heart, because we know how civilians will suffer when they are cut off from critical, lifesaving medical care," said Paul Critchley, head of mission of Doctors Without Borders.

Government checkpoints and bad roads have prevented aid workers and U.N. staff including human rights monitors from reaching areas affected by the fighting, said U.N. Spokesman Joe Contreras.

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