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South Sudan ferry accident kills women, children fleeing fighting

By Laura Smith-Spark and Lindsay Isaac, CNN
January 21, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
A member of South Sudan's army, Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), sits outside the governor's compound in Malakal, the capital of the biggest oil producing state Upper Nile, on January 12, 2014.
A member of South Sudan's army, Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), sits outside the governor's compound in Malakal, the capital of the biggest oil producing state Upper Nile, on January 12, 2014.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Army spokesman says hundreds drowned in a ferry accident as they fled fighting
  • The ferry was carrying women and children when it overturned on a river, he says
  • South Sudan erupted into violence in mid-December
  • More than 350,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, says United Nations

(CNN) -- Between 200 and 300 women and children who were fleeing fighting in South Sudan drowned when an overloaded ferry overturned on a river, a South Sudanese army spokesman said Tuesday.

The accident happened Saturday on the White Nile River near Malakal in the northeast of the country, said Col. Philip Aguer of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

Aguer said he was aware of only two survivors, both crew members. The passengers were all civilians.

South Sudan erupted into violence December 15 when rebels loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar tried to stage a coup. Since then, militia members loyal to Machar have battled government forces.

Talks begin in hopes of halting descent 'into collapse'

Representatives of South Sudan's government and rebels have been meeting for talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, but there has been no cease-fire reached.

Peace talks for South Sudan

The violence has displaced more than 350,000 people, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and sparked a humanitarian crisis.

The U.N. agency appealed Monday for $61 million to help it provide food assistance to those in need.

Even before the violence broke out last month, some 4.4 million people were expected to face food insecurity this year, an agency news release said. Now many more are at risk of hunger.

"It is essential that security and stability return to South Sudan immediately so that displaced people can return to their homes, fields, herds and fishing grounds," said Sue Lautze, the U.N. agency's representative in South Sudan.

"Timing is everything; there are fish in the rivers now, pastoralists are trying to protect their herds and the planting season for maize, groundnut and sorghum starts in March."

South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war, making it the world's youngest nation.

Read: Key South Sudan town in dispute as warring sides prepare for peace talks

Read: South Sudan: What's going on?

CNN's Nana Karikari-apau contributed to this report.

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