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South Sudanese Forces Blamed for Torching Thousands of Homes

Yei River state, South Sudan

South Sudanese government troops burned thousands of civilians' homes late last year, monitors of the country's troubled peace agreement said Friday, making some of the strongest allegations yet against security forces in the three-year civil war.

The new report says three villages in the southern Yei region visited by investigators had been abandoned and destroyed. A visit to Yei in November led the U.N. special adviser on genocide to warn that South Sudan could slip into genocide, while an Associated Press reporter found charred bodies there, some with hands bound.

"In most cases the buildings were deliberately set on fire by government forces," the report said. At least 3,000 homes were burned in a single village.

Government forces denied U.N. officials and investigators access to one Yei village, and government officials blamed rebels and wildfires for the destruction, the report says. Investigators found that unlikely.

Satellite data from Amnesty International shows about 2,000 structures were destroyed along a highway near Yei between late December and January. Separately, U.N. satellite images obtained by the AP show that a buildup of military installations near Yei began as early as September, and the destruction of homes started as early as October.

The once-peaceful Yei region became a target after clashes broke out in the capital, Juba, in July and reignited fighting across the country. A fragile peace deal reached in 2015 under international pressure quickly fell apart.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the region around Yei to neighboring Uganda, which has warned it is reaching breaking point amid the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis.

A separate report by the peace deal monitors says both government and rebel forces prey on civilians in the southern part of the country, but it says more evidence implicates government or allied fighters.

It is "high time" that President Salva Kiir and his commanders are held to account "for these outrageous, well-documented and repeated breaches of international law," said Jonathan Pedneault, a researcher on South Sudan at Human Rights Watch.