Ethiopia’s army entered South Sudan this week to search for over 100 children abducted by a South Sudanese militia during a cross-border cattle raid last month.
Ethiopia said the raiders killed over 200 people and blamed the attack on an ethnic Murle militia from South Sudan’s Boma area, which borders Ethiopia’s Gambela region.
South Sudanese authorities say Murle traditional chiefs are negotiating the children’s release to avoid military action, but Ethiopia’s entrance raises concerns that South Sudan government cannot control its own borders, so its neighbors are stepping in.
South Sudan has been embroiled in a bloody civil war the last two and a half years which has destabilized large parts of the nation and made its already porous borders susceptible to incursions.
President Salva Kiir warned last week that neighboring countries may take advantage of the chaos to push in.
“They can come in with their guns and do whatever they do,” Kiir said in an address to his ministers. “We don’t want this thing to continue.”
South Sudanese authorities insist Ethiopia’s incursion has been done with their full cooperation and approval, but Juba appears in the dark about the Ethiopian operation.
No one can say how many troops have entered South Sudan, and there seems to be serious lack of coordination within South Sudan’s own government.
The army, defense ministry, and the Boma government give different information about where the Ethiopian troops have entered South Sudan, and each have sent their own envoys to Addis Ababa.
South Sudanese authorities give conflicting stories about the chiefs’ rescue efforts, too.
The Boma government told Quartz 32 children were recovered, but presidential spokesman said 41. South Sudan’s army spokesman told Quartz he cannot confirm any children are saved.
This isn’t the first time neighboring countries or armed groups have infiltrated South Sudan to apparently capitalize on its civil war.
Last year, Uganda’s army entered the disputed Magwi area, while Kenyan soldiers pushed north to South Sudan’s Nadapal settlement near an oil-rich area.
Sudan to the north has also applied pressure by halting trade across its border to landlocked South Sudan while allegedly carrying out aerial bombings on South Sudanese territory in March.
Meanwhile, the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels of Joseph Kony reportedly entered South Sudan’s Raja County in the northwest this year after being based in nearby Sudan and Central African Republic.
Deadly cattle raids are common along the South Sudan-Ethiopia border often including abductions of children and women as wives or to care for stolen cattle.