Rebel gunmen in South Sudan massacred hundreds of civilians because of their ethnicity when they captured the key oil town of Bentiu last week, the UN said on Monday. It is one of the worst reported atrocities in the war-torn nation.
In the main mosque alone, “More than 200 civilians were reportedly killed and over 400 wounded,” the UN mission in the country said. “They (the rebels) searched a number of places where hundreds of South Sudanese and foreign civilians had taken refuge, and killed hundreds of the civilians after determining their ethnicity or nationality.”
Children were among the civilians slaughtered at a church, a hospital and an abandoned UN World Food Programme (WFP) compound, it said.
Fighters said on the radio that rival groups should be forced from the town of Bentiu and urged men to rape women from the opposition ethnic group.
Thousands of people have been killed in the northeast African nation since December, when presidential guards splintered along ethnic lines. The violence later spread across the country as soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir tried to put down a rebellion led by former vice president Riek Machar.
Oil fieds targetted
Machar launched a renewed offensive this month targeting key oil fields. The conflict has taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir’s Dinka tribe against militia forces from Machar’s Nuer people.
UN human rights investigators said that after rebels wrested Bentiu from government forces in heavy battles last Tuesday, the gunmen spent two days hunting down those they believed opposed them.
The rebels have since denied responsibility for the massacres.
“Driving from the airstrip into [Bentiu], we saw dead bodies lying on the side of the road. They were people who had been killed four, five days earlier when the city changed hands,” Amanda Weyler, who works for the UN office for coordination, told FRANCE 24 over the phone.
“Then, as we drove farther into town, we reached the market and we saw a large number of bodies decomposing – groups of people who, by all evidence, looked like civilians. It looked like they had been executed,” she said.
Both South Sudanese and Sudanese—some from the war-torn Darfur region—were killed in the violence, the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said in a statement.
Hate radio urged rape
Some rebels took to the local radio to “broadcast hate messages declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu, and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community”, the statement added.
Shortly after the town’s capture, rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang praised the “gallant forces” for having completed “mopping- and cleaning-up operations in and around Bentiu”.
Peacekeepers later rescued over 500 civilians, many of them wounded, from the hospital and other sites, as well as guarding thousands of civilians who continued to stream towards the UN base, where an estimated 25,000 people are now crammed in for shelter.
The capture of Bentiu came two days before gunmen stormed a UN compound in which at least 58 people were killed, with peacekeepers fighting back to protect over 5,000 civilians sheltering within. The UN Security Council said that attack might constitute a war crime.
The surge in fighting in the four-month-long conflict comes amid warnings by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that more than one million people are at risk of famine. A ceasefire deal is in tatters, while peace talks in Ethiopia have made little progress.
The conflict in South Sudan, which only won independence from Sudan in 2011 and is the world’s youngest nation, has left thousands dead and forced around a million people to flee their homes. The fighting has been marked by reports and allegations of atrocities by both sides, with ethnic massacres, child soldier recruitment and hospital patients raped and murdered.
The United States, the key backer of South Sudan’s move to independence, has threatened targeted sanctions against those responsible for the violence.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)
Date created : 2014-04-21