Rebel gunmen in South Sudan massacred “hundreds” of civilians because of their ethnicity when they captured a key oil town last week, the UN said on Monday, calling for a probe into 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 Republic of Sudan said.
Civilians, including children, were also massacred at a church, hospital and abandoned UN World Food Program compound, it added.
After visiting the town of Bentiu, top UN aid official in South Sudan Toby Lanzer told reporters that he had seen the “most terrible sight.”
“There are piles of bodies lining the streets where they had been executed, in the market, outside and inside places of worship ... the majority wearing civilian clothes,” Lanzer said.
Fighters took to the radio to urge men to rape women from the opposition ethnic group and said rival groups should be forced from the town, the UN said.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army has been fighting rebels loyal to sacked South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar, who launched a renewed offensive this month targeting key oil fields.
The conflict has an ethnic dimension, pitting South Sudanese President Salva 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 on April 15, the gunmen spent two days hunting down those who they believed opposed them.
Peacekeepers are photographing those killed to provide documentation before burial, Lanzer said, with video footage shot by UN workers showing digger machines loaded with corpses.
“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,” the UN statement said.
After the town was captured, rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang praised the “gallant forces” for completing “mopping and cleaning up operations in and around Bentiu.”
At the Kali-Ballee Mosque, where hundreds had taken shelter, the rebels “separated individuals of certain nationalities and ethnic groups and escorted them to safety, while the others were killed,” the UN report said.
At the hospital, “several Nuer men, women and children were killed for hiding and declining to join other Nuers who had gone out to cheer” the rebels as they entered the town, the UN said.
Peacekeepers later rescued more than 500 civilians from the hospital and other sites, as well as guarding “thousands” of civilians as they stream toward the UN base, where more than 22,000 people are sheltered in desperate conditions.