In a report issued today, the Human Rights Division of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has said there is reason to believe that at least 11 civilians were killed and several other serious rights abuses were committed during an attack by opposition forces on Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, in October this year.
Investigations into the incident are ongoing but the report offers preliminary findings on allegations that the attack on Bentiu was accompanied by the deliberate targeting of civilians by armed elements and that women were abducted by opposition forces and subjected to conflict-related sexual violence.
“Reports of such gross human rights abuses are all too common in the current conflict and involve all sides,” stated the report. According to its preliminary findings, “(opposition) forces committed gross human rights abuses and serious violations of international humanitarian law which may amount to war crimes.”
UNMISS human rights officers conducted 21 interviews with victims, witnesses and other sources in the aftermath of the 29 October attack, visiting the incident sites and retracing the alleged sequence of events.
Multiple testimonies received by the investigators alleged that civilians sheltering in a Catholic church were beaten with sticks before eight male civilians were shot and killed and two wounded. Several witnesses also reported that two women and a six-month-old baby were killed in their homes by opposition forces near a Catholic church in the Dere neighbourhood of Bentiu.
During their visit to the sites, human rights officers observed graves where victims were allegedly buried, as well as unburied bodies. Officers also compiled a list of 14 names of women who were allegedly kidnapped by opposition forces during the brief occupation.
State officials allege that at least 20 women were abducted and reportedly forced to carry wounded opposition fighters. One witness reported that the women were beaten and stripped naked for being in Bentiu town instead of being in the UNMISS protection of civilians site, while there were several reports of women being sexually assaulted and forced to have sex with opposition fighters.
When investigators visited local authorities associated with the opposition in Nhialdiu on 24 November, they denied accusations that opposition forces targeted or kidnapped any civilians and suggested that the civilians may have died when caught in crossfire. They added that women seen leaving Bentiu had accompanied opposition forces of their own free will
“This report is a timely reminder of the fighting that has continued in Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states in spite of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement that both warring parties signed nearly a year ago,” said Ellen Margrethe Løj, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in South Sudan. “I strongly condemn the targeting of unarmed civilians in the ongoing fighting and call on both parties to exercise restraint and respect the rights of non-combatants.”