JUBA // South Sudan's army reclaimed control of a town destroyed in a vendetta that sent thousands of people scurrying into the bush and threatened the stability of the world's newest country.
A column of some 6,000 armed youths from the Lou Nuer tribe marched on the town of Pibor in Jonglei state, home to the rival Murle people, who they blame for cattle raiding and have vowed to kill.
"Pibor is under the full control of the government, and the Lou Nuer have been ordered to return to their homes, and they are starting to do so," said the information minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin.
Gunmen burnt thatched huts and looted a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the worst flare-up in a dispute that has left more than 1,000 dead in recent months.
John Boloch Kumen, from the government-appointed Peace and Reconciliation Commission, visited the village of Lekongele on Sunday as part of an assessment team.
"No single house was left, the whole town was devastated ... seven people were burnt in their tukuls [thatch huts], all of them women," Mr Kumen said, adding that two churches, a school and a health centre were rased.
"What was left was only the vultures and the trees."
The government and the United Nations, which has warned the ethnic violence could lead to a "major tragedy", were beefing up their forces in the area.
Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, said "probably well over 20,000" people had fled into the bush "running for their lives and looking for safety".
Officials fear the fighting has left scores of people dead, while the UN has flown the wounded to the capital, Juba.
But Mr Benjamin said the violence of the cattle vendetta would be brought under control, saying that "South Sudan is not, and will not become, some kind of Somalia".
Just one health clinic remains to provide health care for some 160,000 people in Pibor county, after Pibor hospital and a clinic at Lekongole run by MSF were looted.
Parthesarathy Rajendran, the MSF chief of mission in South Sudan, warned that the longer people stay in the bush the "more serious it will become for people who are injured or sick".
"They fled in haste and have no food or water, some of them doubtless carrying wounds or injuries, and now they are on their own, hiding, beyond the reach of humanitarian assistance," said Mr Rajendran yesterday.
MSF has temporarily suspended its operations after the clashes forced them to evacuate staff, but remains ready to provide "emergency care as soon as possible."
Ethnic violence, cattle raids and reprisal attacks in the vast eastern state left over 1,100 people dead and forced some 63,000 from their homes last year, according to UN reports based on local authorities and assessment teams.