South Sudanese government forces were responsible for scores of killings, rapes and widespread pillaging and burning of civilian property, Human Rights Watch reported Wednesday. The rights group said the military's attacks on civilians amounted to war crimes and may also have constituted crimes against humanity.
Government forces and allied militias were accused of hanging, shooting and burning civilians alive. In some cases, soldiers ran down civilians with tanks, and then reversed to ensure they were dead. Following the razing of civilian areas, soldiers reportedly raped and abducted civilians, openly firing at those who attempted to flee.
“Government-aligned forces carried out gruesome killings and widespread rapes and burned countless homes as they swept across large parts of Unity State,” said Daniel Biekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, according to the group. “The devastating offensive in Unity State is the latest in a conflict characterized by shocking disregard for civilian life.”
The details of the report included some of the most horrific accounts yet out of the war-ravaged region which has experienced an increase in violence in recent months. The full report, titled, “They burned it All: Destruction of Villages, Killings, and Sexual Violence in South Sudan’s Unity State,” is based on more than 170 interviews conducted in June and July with survivors and witnesses of government atrocities.
— Iain Levine (@iainlevine) July 22, 2015
Human Rights Watch documented more than 60 cases of unlawful killings of civilians. In some villages, property was destroyed even as the government met no local resistance, as men reportedly fled villages before government forces arrived. “Brutal attacks on fleeing civilians combined with widespread burning of villages, food, and other items that people need to survive suggests that the government’s aim was to forcibly displace people from their homes,” Bekele said.
In April 2015, South Sudan’s government forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, launched an offensive to take back the oil-rich Unity State from control of rebel forces aligned with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. The country has been gripped by violence since December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused his former vice president of plotting a coup against him. Since then, the country has broken down along ethnic fault lines, as thousands of civilians have been killed and millions have been displaced from the violence. The United Nations recently said it would send a fact-finding mission to assess the sources of violence in the region and hold accountable those responsible for recent violence.
In Wednesday's report, Human Rights Watch echoed calls for accountability. The New York based rights group called on the United Nations to expand its sanctions against individuals responsible for crimes during the government’s recent offensive, and called on U.S. President Barack Obama to commit to advancing an arms embargo in a visit with the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, later this month.