JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - A new United Nations report is urging the release of hundreds of people who were abducted in South Sudan amid the conflict between rebel and government forces.
The report — released recently by the U.N. Human Rights Commission — accused the Sudan People's Liberation Army-in Opposition, or SPLA-IO rebels, of abducting 900 people and forcing 24,000 others to flee their homes in Western Equatoria state between April and August. At the time, South Sudan's warring parties were negotiating a revised peace agreement.
The report also accuses government forces of killing civilians and destroying their property. Spokespersons for both sides deny their forces abused civilians.
Elizabeth Throssell is a media officer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. She told U.N.-run Radio Miraya the report details multiple cases of violence in Western Equatoria.
"The report focuses on an outsizing violence between April and August this year in between Gbudue and Tambura states in the Western Equatoria region, and it looks at the effects on civilians — the abductions, rape, looting, destruction of property by the SPLA and IO forces — and also refers to some of the attacks carried out by SPLA forces," Throssell said.
The report said three SPLA-IO commanders were involved in the attacks but did not identify them. Throssell said while the U.N. Mission in South Sudan wasn't able to identify the commanders responsible for the violations documented in the report, the perpetrators must be brought to justice.
"That includes the government actively pursuing accountability and conducting a prompt, effective, independent investigation into all the allegations and violations including international human rights," Throssell said.
Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Lul Ruai Koang strongly denied that government forces killed civilians or destroyed civilian property in Western Equatoria. He suggested certain rebel groups may be responsible.
"That area is having so many rebel groups, the ones loyal to [former Western Equatoria Gov. Joseph Bangasi] Bakosoro. We had South Sudan Liberation Army initially operating in that area. About three to four groups have been operating in that area, and basically you find them putting on the same uniforms we have," Koang told VOA's South Sudan in Focus program.
SPLA-IO deputy military spokesman Col. Lam Paul Gabriel acknowledges that rebel forces attacked a barracks in Western Equatoria, forcing many civilians to flee, but accused government forces of burning houses, looting property, and raping girls and women.
"They said we attacked villages, but what we are aware of is we only attacked the barracks, military barracks in Nagero. That was in May 2018. We did not attack civilians. We went straight to the barracks. It was after the government had been disturbing us in Nagero," Gabriel told South Sudan in Focus.
He denied his group abducted any civilians in Western Equatoria.
"We are even not able to feed ourselves. How are we going to feed these 900? If we cannot feed 100 soldiers of the SPLA-IO, how are we going to feed the civilians? That is really false," Gabriel said.
Among the recommendations, the report calls for accountability and reinforcement of existing recovery and resilience programs to re-establish access to basic services, particularly medical support for survivors of sexual violence. It also calls for economic alternatives for young men caught up in South Sudan's nearly five-year civil war.
The war in the world's youngest country was the result of a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. Kiir and Machar recently signed a renewed peace accord.