JUBA: Thousands of South Sudanese have been killed in over a week of violence with reports of bodies piled in mass graves, the United Nations (UN) said on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila), as the Security Council agreed to nearly double its peacekeepers in the young nation threatening to slide into civil war.
The top UN humanitarian chief in the country Toby Lanzer said on Tuesday there was “absolutely no doubt in my mind that we’re into the thousands” of dead, the first clear indication of the scale of the conflict engulfing South Sudan, which won independence from Sudan to much fanfare just two years ago.
However, the government also celebrated on Tuesday the important and strategic recapture of the key town of Bor after a nearly weeklong rebel occupation, although large areas of the country remain out of their control.
Earlier, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said a mass grave had been found in the rebel-held town of Bentiu, while there were “reportedly at least two other mass graves” in the capital Juba.
The grim discovery follows escalating battles between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those backing his rival Riek Machar, a former vice president who was sacked in July.
The official toll nationwide has stood at 500 dead for days, although aid workers have said the toll was likely to be far higher.
Witnesses that Agence France-Presse has spoken to recount a wave of atrocities, including an orchestrated campaign of ethnic mass killings and rape.
In a Christmas message to the people, Kiir said that “innocent people have been wantonly killed,” warning that the violence risked spiralling out of control.
“There are now people who are targeting others because of their tribal affiliation . . . It will only lead to one thing and that is to turn this new nation into chaos,” Kiir said in a statement.
The unrest has taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir’s Dinka tribe against the Nuer tribe to which Machar belongs.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has warned reports of crimes against humanity will be investigated, as well as asking the Security Council to nearly double the size of the UN mission in the country.
However, Machar said for the first time Tuesday that he was “ready” to accept Kiir’s offer of talks, suggesting neighboring Ethiopia as a neutral location.
“We want democratic free and fair elections. We want Salva Kiir to call it a day,” Machar said, listing his demands, which follow days of shuttle diplomacy by African nations and calls from Western powers for fighting to stop.
Machar’s promise of talks came shortly before the army stormed Bor town, which Information Minister Michael Makwei called a “gift of the government of South Sudan to the people”.
Bor’s capture, apparently without major resistance by the rebels, relieves some 17,000 besieged civilians who fled into the UN peacekeeping compound for protection, severely stretching limited food and supplies.
UN peacekeepers had spent days bolstering fortifications ahead of the army assault, after militia gunmen last week stormed a UN compound in the Jonglei outpost of Akobo, killing two Indian soldiers and some 20 ethnic Dinka civilians sheltering there.
Fighting has spread to half of the young nation’s 10 states, the UN said, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to the countryside and UN bases flooded with others seeking shelter, prompting warnings of an imminent humanitarian disaster.
Pillay’s spokeswoman told Agence France-Presse that a UN official had on Monday visited a mass killing site in Bentiu, the capital of the oil-rich Unity State, and counted at least 34 bodies with dozens more feared dead.
The UN official who visited counted 14 bodies in the grave and 20 at a riverside nearby, but 74 ethnic Dinka soldiers are also missing feared dead, she said.
Rebel fighters are also reported to have committed atrocities in areas they control.
Late on Tuesday, the Security Council voted to nearly double the number of UN peacekeepers and police.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon had called for the UNMISS force to be increased to counter a major outbreak of violence, and member states agreed to increase the military contingent to 12,500 troops.