An international rights group has accused South Sudanese government forces and allied fighters of raping women, killing civilians as they fled into the bush, burning villages and looting property during a military operation in Unity State earlier this year.
In a report released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) described what it calls shocking violence against civilians in the oil-rich state between April and June.
HRW said Wednesday that the alleged attacks on civilians amount to war crimes, and the killings and rapes may also constitute crimes against humanity.
The HRW report echoed accusations made last month by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS.
Reports of violence
Both Human Rights Watch and UNMISS said in their reports that the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and associated armed groups waged a campaign of violence against civilians in Unity State.
The reports said it has documented about 60 unlawful killings of women, men, children and the elderly who were caught up in fighting for control of the oil-rich state, were raped, beaten, hanged, burned alive and even run over by SPLA tanks.
Skye Wheeler, a researcher for HRW's Africa division, said the advocacy group’s researchers were told harrowing stories by more than 170 witnesses and survivors of the alleged attacks who were interviewed for the report.
“We found that government forces, government soldiers together with allied forces from the Bul Nuer, burnt scores of villages, hundreds of huts, and also attacked and killed many civilians and raped many women," Wheeler said.
"Other women were also beaten or abducted and in some cases women and children were forced to take goods, things that have been looted, pillaged, stolen by fighters back to Bul Nuer areas," she added.
The rights group said more than 125 of the interviewees were displaced by the fighting or attacks on their villages.
Rape, killing allegations
HRW said in the report government forces and aligned militia shot terrified civilians as they fled into forests and swamps and deliberately burned villages to the ground and destroyed food stores and seeds intended for cultivation.
The report also documents 63 cases of rape, including gang rapes.
“We found a very widespread and systematic pattern of abuse by government and these are possible war crimes and even crimes against humanity," Wheeler said.
The report called for the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court to investigate the alleged atrocities, or for a hybrid court made up of South Sudanese and international lawyers and judges to be set up to investigate and prosecute the alleged crimes.
Wheeler said the South Sudanese authorities must also "take action very quickly now to try and find out which commanders were most responsible for forces which committed these abuses. And to find out why this government offensive was so incredibly destructive and ruined so many lives.”
Colonel Philip Aguer, SPLA spokesman, said the army is already investigating the claims made in last month’s UNMISS report and will probe whether army personnel were involved in the alleged atrocities documented in the human rights watch report.
"The SPLA command is conducting an investigation into the report to know exactly where the alleged violations took place," Aguer said.
"If it is proved that the SPLA soldiers or officers carried out such violations, definitely this is against our laws as South Sudan army and it is against the rules of engagement that prohibit any killings of innocent civilians and violations of the rights and properties," he added.
Aguer invited rights groups and the United Nations to work alongside SPLA investigators as they investigate the alleged acts of brutality against civilians.
“We are committed to accountability," he added.
Peace talks for South Sudan are set to resume in Addis Ababa early next month after a five-month break during which fighting flared again – particularly in Unity and Upper Nile states.