South Sudan’s government on Friday said that rebel fighters are in control of the capital of an oil-rich state that has seen several days of heavy fighting.
Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek said government troops carried out a “tactical withdrawal” from Upper Nile State’s capital, Malakal, to avoid further loss of life.
In its first report on human rights abuses during the conflict released on Friday, the UN said that civilians in South Sudan have been the main target of the ethnic violence that has likely killed thousands and subjected thousands more to rape, arbitrary arrest, torture and the looting and burning of their homes.
The UN Mission in South Sudan said the report on the progress of human rights investigations during the first six weeks of the crisis — from Dec. 15 last year through Jan. 31 — offers a “snapshot” of the violence perpetrated mainly by forces loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who is an ethnic Dinka, and rebel soldiers loyal to former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer.
Despite a ceasefire signed last month, battles continue to rage between government troops and rebel fighters loyal to Machar.
Wek on Friday accused former Machar of trying to divide the country along ethnic lines and blamed rebel fighters for carrying out atrocities on civilians in Malakal.
People in Malakal are “subjected to targeted killing based on their ethnic identities, women are being raped in broad daylight with impunity, unnecessary killing of the very elderly, children and sick people on their hospital beds,” Wek said.
Negotiators for Juba and Machar have been meeting at talks in Ethiopia, but are making little progress. The UN has warned that the country could face famine conditions unless residents are able to return home and plant crops before the upcoming rainy season.
Doctors Without Borders said it and the International Red Cross have treated more than 150 people — mostly for gunshot wounds — in and around Malakal over the past couple of days.
The group also said it has been treating patients wounded during fighting among the more than 21,000 people being housed inside the UN base there. It added that displaced residents are reporting the killing and rape of patients inside the only functional hospital in Malakal.
However, UN Mission in South Sudan head Hilde Johnson told reporters that the situation in the UN’s Malakal base was “calm and contained,” while a shortage of water had been fixed.
The UN report released on Friday said that during more than 500 interviews, “witnesses, victims and government and security officials reported the deliberate targeting of civilians, both nationals and foreigners, in extrajudicial and other unlawful killings, including mass killings...”
In a release accompanying the report, the mission said there was fresh evidence of rights abuses in the battle for control of Malakal, including the extra-judicial execution of two children outside the UN compound’s perimeter on Thursday.
A UN patrol also collected eyewitness testimony from residents alleging that opposition forces targeted and killed 10 unarmed civilians at the Malakal Teaching Hospital on the basis of their ethnic background on Wednesday.