Warring forces on both sides of South Sudan's brutal civil war have probably carried out crimes against humanity, the United Nations said yesterday, warning of "countless" gross violations of human rights.
The UN peacekeeping mission in the country found "reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed during the conflict by both government and opposition forces", it said in a report.
The report was issued one day before President Salva Kiir and rebel chief Riek Machar were due to meet for peace talks in neighbouring Ethiopia.
"Countless incidents of gross violations of human rights and serious violations of humanitarian law have occurred during the conflict in South Sudan," said the UN report, based on more than 900 interviews with victims and witnesses.
"These include extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, rape, the direct targeting of civilians, often along ethnic lines, as well as ill-treatment and the destruction of property. These are crimes for which perpetrators bear individual criminal responsibility."
Despite the signing of a January 23 ceasefire, fierce fighting continues, and the United Nations has warned of the risk of famine and genocide.
Although starting as a personal rivalry between Kiir and Machar, the conflict has seen armies divide along ethnic lines, pitting members of Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer. The war has claimed thousands - and possibly tens of thousands - of lives, with more than 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes. Almost five million were in need of aid, according to the UN.
The report detailed horrific killings, including in the first days after fighting broke out in the capital Juba on December 15.
One Nuer man recounted how army troops raided houses and shot civilians in Juba. "Nuer were being killed like chickens," he was quoted as saying.
In its own report released yesterday, Amnesty International warned of a growing inability of political leaders to claw back their forces, as communities spiralled into cycles of revenge.
Amnesty said its researches had also documented atrocities committed by all sides.
Testimonies describe civilians including children executed by the side of road "like sheep", gang raping of women using sticks, and other victims "grotesquely mutilated".
"The longer ethnic rivalries are allowed to deepen and fester, the more fragmented South Sudan will become, making ... peace much more difficult to achieve," Amnesty warned.