The South Sudan government has arrested an unspecified number of members of the security forces who are suspected of targeting and killing civilians on the basis of their ethnicity, an official said Thursday.
“We know that some individuals from the military, from the SPLA who were accused of targeting some groups are now under detention. And they are going to be investigated as to why they did that and whenever they are found guilty then they will be dealt with,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Mawien Makol Arik said.
The announcement of the detentions came hard on the heels of a report released by Human Rights Watch,
which documented widespread killings of Nuer men by members of the South Sudanese armed forces in Juba since fighting erupted in the capital city on Dec. 15.
The report also said ethnic Dinka were killed by opposition forces in other parts of the country.
Human Rights Watch said many of the crimes committed in South Sudan are "serious violations of international humanitarian law and may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity."
Makol said the government has launched a campaign to explain that the fighting that continues to wrack South Sudan, a month after it started, is not a conflict between Nuer and Dinka.
He said the government has established a committee that is "going to go around South Sudan to tell the people... that that the thing that happened was not a tribal thing. It was not based on any tribal affiliation, it was politically motivated.”
Makol accused opposition forces of stoking ethnic tensions in a bid to gain support for themselves.
“This issue of tribal affiliations has been used by the rebels to try to rally support so that they get people to support them," he said.
Last month, the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said it had "mounting evidence" that serious human rights abuses, including targeted ethnic killings, were being committed in South Sudan.
The majority of what UNMISS described as "the more brutal atrocities" were reportedly carried out by "people wearing uniform," the U.N mission said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch compiled its report after interviewing more than 200 victims of and witnesses to abuses in Juba and Bor. Violence is still raging in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, but Juba has been relatively calm for several weeks.
In addition to targeted ethnic killings, Human Rights Watch said it has received multiple reports of looting of medical and humanitarian facilities, and of the government denying authorization for aid workers to travel to areas where people are in desperate need of aid.
International medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told VOA Thursday that its compound in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state where the two sides have been fighting for several days, was looted by unidentified gunmen.
"The South Sudanese government and leaders of opposition forces should ensure unhindered access by U.N. and independent humanitarian agencies to displaced and other civilians in need of assistance and protection," Human Rights Watch said.
"Both sides should respect medical and humanitarian facilities, material and staff, as required by international law. Anyone who blocks or otherwise doesn’t cooperate with independent humanitarian activities should be held accountable," it said in its report.