U.N. says tide of refugees from South Sudan rising fast

By Elias Biryabarema
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File Photo: People who fled fighting in South Sudan are seen walking at sunset on arrival at Bidi Bidi refugee resettlement camp near the border with South Sudan, in Yumbe district

File Photo: People who fled fighting in South Sudan are seen walking at sunset on arrival at Bidi Bidi refugee resettlement camp near the border with South Sudan, in Yumbe district, northern Uganda December 7, 2016. REUTERS/James Akena/File Photo

By Elias Biryabarema

KAMPALA (Reuters) - Some 1.5 million refugees have fled fighting and famine in South Sudan to neighbouring countries, half of them to Uganda, and thousands more are leaving daily, the U.N. refugee agency said on Thursday.

Political rivalry between South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar ignited a civil war in 2013 that has often followed ethnic lines.

The two signed a shaky peace deal in 2015, but fighting has continued and Machar fled in July after days of clashes between soldiers loyal to him and Kiir's forces in the capital Juba. He is now in South Africa.

Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the UNHCR in Uganda, said the agency estimated the total number of South Sudanese who have gone to neighbouring countries at 1.5 million, half in Uganda.

In December there were an estimated 600,000 South Sudanese who had arrived in Uganda.

Yaxley said there were thousands of new arrivals every day. The UNHCR had planned for 300,000 this year.

"We have already in the first two months of this year received 120,00 new arrivals. If this rate of inflow continues actually that figure for 2017 will be far higher," Yaxley said.

Refugees arriving in Uganda often say they are fleeing from ethnic violence.

"I was in Invepi ... and almost every refugee I spoke to had either seen a friend or family member killed in front of their eyes," Yaxley said, referring to the latest refugee settlement set up in Uganda.

Violence has prevented many farmers from harvesting crops and the scarcity of food has been compounded by hyperinflation, triggering famine in parts of South Sudan.

The UNHCR says the refugee crisis is the world's third largest after Syria's and Afghanistan's.

(Editing by George Obulutsa and Andrew Roche)

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