A mass grave containing about 75 bodies has been found in South Sudan’s Unity State and two other mass graves have been reported in the capital Juba after ethnic violence, the UN said yesterday.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called on both sides to protect civilians, and warned that political and military leaders could be held to account for crimes.
“Mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days,” Pillay said in a statement. “We have discovered a mass grave in Bentiu, in Unity State, and there are reportedly at least two other mass graves in Juba.”
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, his former deputy, have both indicated they were ready to talk to try to end a deepening conflict that has killed hundreds of people since it erupted this month.
Western powers and east African states, anxious to prevent the fighting from destabilizing a particularly fragile region, have tried to mediate between Machar, who hails from the Nuer tribe, and Kiir, a Dinka.
UN spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said that the bodies of 75 soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army were believed to be in the mass grave in Bentiu visited by UN rights officers.
“They are reportedly all of Dinka ethnicity,” Shamdasani said in Geneva, adding that the UN team had been unable to verify the numbers or identities.
UN rights officers had not yet been able to visit the sites of two other mass graves, Jebel-Kujur and Newside, near Eden, both in Juba, she said.
Pillay, a former UN war crimes judge, voiced deep concern about the safety of those arrested who are being held in unknown locations, including “several hundred civilians who were reportedly arrested during house-to-house searches and from various hotels in Juba.”
Hundreds of members of the South Sudan National Police Service were allegedly ordered to be disarmed and arrested from police stations across Juba, she said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sought urgently on Monday to nearly double the size of the UN peacekeeping force in the country.
“The world is watching all sides in South Sudan,” Ban told reporters ahead of emergency Security Council talks on the crisis.
“The United Nations will investigate reports of grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Those responsible at the senior level will be held personally accountable and face the consequences — even if they claim they had no knowledge of the attacks,” he said.
Machar’s forces have since seized the town of Bor, capital of the powder-keg eastern Jonglei State and located just 200km north of Juba, as well as the town of Bentiu, capital of crucial oil-producing Unity Dtate.
About 17,000 civilians are sheltering at the UN base inside the besieged town, with food and water supplies low, as peacekeepers bolster their base’s fortifications ahead of an expected assault.
Heavy fighting is also reported in Malakal, the state capital of oil-producing Upper Nile, Aguer said, despite days of shuttle diplomacy by African nations and calls from Western powers for the fighting to stop.