Rebels in South Sudan have reportedly abducted eight aid workers with the Christian humanitarian organization Samaritan's Purse. The group is led by Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham.
According to a military official, the kidnappers are demanding food as ransom.
"The rebels attacked and abducted eight local staff from Samaritan's Purse and they are being held to ransom," Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang told Reuters. "They have demanded that the organization takes aid to them."
The eight local workers were kidnapped from a village near Mayiandit, about 420 miles northeast of South Sudan's capital city of Juba.
Samaritan's Purse released the following statement about the situation:
"Samaritan's Purse confirms that some of our South Sudanese staff in the Mayendit area of South Sudan have been detained by armed personnel. We have been in contact with them and they have not been harmed."
Late last month, South Sudan's government and UN agencies said several counties, including Mayiandit, were facing severe famine.
Security conditions in the famine-stricken areas have also deteriorated. On February 20, authorities in Mayiandit told 28 aid workers to leave the county following skirmishes north of the town.
"Renewed fighting had been reported on the outskirts of the town on 1 March and the 28 aid workers had not been able to return because of the continued fighting," Jens Laerke with the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.
Samaritan's Purse has described the situation in Mayendit has "a level 4 famine."
"We call on all the parties involved to immediately provide complete and unfettered humanitarian access in order to meet the needs of a starving population in order to save lives," Samaritan's Purse said in a statement.
The United Nations says more than 7 million people in South Sudan are in need of aid. That number is up by 1.4 million from last year.
Roughly three million people have been displaced by fighting between government and rebel forces. An estimated 200,000 people have fled the country since the beginning of the year.
Aid groups say a collapsing economy, high food prices, low agricultural production and a three-year civil war have only made life in the world's newest country more difficult.
"The famine in South Sudan is man-made," Stephen O'Brien, a United Nation's spokesman said. "Parties to the conflict are parties to the famine - as are those not intervening to make the violence stop."
Samaritan's Purse has been working in South Sudan for many years.
"The nation has the potential to be considered the bread basket of East Africa, yet is now experiencing significant food shortages because of civil strife," Samaritan's Purse' website claims.
The aid group says ongoing violence and insecurity "have made it nearly impossible for civilians to plant and harvest crops."
"Local markets in Mayendit are empty and closed, food production has been greatly limited, and malnutrition among women and children continues to increase," the group's website said.
"Typical livestock, such as chickens and goats, can no longer be found, as they've been used as a source of food for the community over the years of suffering. The cattle that do remain are thin and unable to produce enough milk for the people."