Last updated on: September 16, 2013 10:01 PM
JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN — South Sudan army officials have dismissed as an exaggeration the findings of a Human Rights Watch report that accuses soldiers of killing scores of members of the Murle community in Jonglei state, most of them civilians, since December 2012,
In the report, titled "They Are Killing Us," Human Rights Watch says the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) "has committed serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law" since December last year in its battle against rebels in Jonglei state led by David Yau Yau.
"SPLA soldiers have unlawfully killed at least 96 people, mostly civilians, from the Murle ethnic group during the conflict, and they have engaged in widespread looting of homes, clinics, schools and churches," the report says.
But SPLA Information Director Malak Ayuen Ajol denied the allegations, insisting that the army is instead trying to protect civilians in Jonglei's restive Pibor County from militants led by Yau Yau.
"We are not targeting the Murle... We are targeting the armed civilian population... we went into Pibor to disarm the armed civilian population," he said.
“We are trying actually to see how best the army will fight the rebels or the armed civilians and also try to see whether there is a way where other civilians who are not involved, like women, like children, are not part of the whole thing,” he said.
While he did acknowledge that innocent people may have accidentally been killed during clashes with Yau Yau's rebels, he denied that the number of dead was anywhere near the figure of 96, which was cited in the report.
Ayuen said he suspects many of the people described in the report as civilians had in fact joined Yau Yau's rebel group, which has been fighting to overthrow the government in Juba for more than a year.
"These are civilians with their guns. They are fighting the government. So how do you really count them as civilians if they are armed and they are fighting the government?” he said.
The report cites several incidents involving the SPLA to make its case, including one in December 2012, when soldiers allegedly executed 13 men who were playing a board game in Lotho village.
Defense Minister Kuol Manyang said SPLA leaders will look the into allegations in the report.