Battles between government troops and rebels raged in South Sudan, as the UN said child soldiers had joined the more than month-long conflict with atrocities committed on both sides.
“The reports that we have come across involve mass killings, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting, and child soldier recruitment,” UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic told reporters on Friday as he wrapped up a visit to the country.
He also reported rape, kidnappings, arbitrary detention and widespread destruction and looting.
Simonovic said the unrest, which started on Dec. 15 when South Sudanese President Salva Kiir accused former South Sudanese Deputy President Riek Machar of plotting a coup, can now be qualified as “internal armed conflict.”
“In the legal sense it means that besides violations of human rights and potential crimes against humanity, we can also speak about war crimes,” he added.
He described seeing bodies that had been bound before being shot on the streets of the northern town of Bentiu, wrested back from rebels last week.
Ceasefire talks are deadlocked amid squabbling between leaders and rebel demands for the release of political prisoners.
Regional nations have already been drawn into the brutal conflict, with Ugandan troops battling alongside the government.
The army said on Friday it had lost contact with forces in the key oil-town of Malakal, which both rebels and the government claim to control.
Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed so far in the fighting, pitting forces loyal to Kiir against a loose coalition of army defectors and ethnic militia nominally headed by Machar, a seasoned guerrilla fighter.
A confidential memo from Kenya’s ministry of foreign affairs says that Machar has alleged Ugandan fighter jets have tried to bomb his hideout in Jonglei.
Simonovic said there were reports of “quite a number of child soldiers” in a militia force known as the “White Army” that has rampaged across the eastern state of Jonglei, fighting alongside mutinous soldiers loyal to Machar.
However, the government insists it is still hopeful of a deal at talks in neighboring Ethiopia mediated by the East African regional bloc IGAD, even though Uganda is a key member and the rebels have expressed concern about its neutrality.
Machar has been also deeply critical of Sudan’s offer of troops to protect the oil fields of its former archfoe South Sudan, noting that Khartoum is also part of IGAD talks.
“We remain confident it will not be very long until a cessation of hostilities agreement is signed,” the government said in a statement late on Thursday.
The EU said on Friday it was providing 1.1 million euros (US$1.4 million) to support IGAD talks — taking place in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa — to stop South Sudan “descending into a civil war.”
The situation on the ground appears grim, as civilians flee the latest conflict flashpoint.
“I fled from my home before sunset and spent the night in a forest,” a South Sudanese woman said after crossing the border into Sudan, alongside hundreds of crying children and exhausted adults.
According to the UN, about 468,000 civilians have fled their homes as the violence spiraled into ethnic killings between members of Kiir’s Dinka people — the country’s largest group — and the Nuer community of Machar.
The UN is sheltering about 22,000 civilians in its cramped base, reporting tank battles and heavy street fighting in the hours after the rebels launched their attack.