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The United Nations Mission in South Sudan has condemned the targeted killings of non-combatants that resulted in the deaths of hundreds when the rebel faction of the South Sudan Army, the SPLA-in-Opposition, overran Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, between Tuesday and Wednesday last week.
UNMISS investigators have confirmed that when the SPLA-in-Opposition (predominantly Nuer like the rebel leader Riek Machar) wrested control of the capital of the oil-rich state, some soldiers sorted people on the basis of their nationality and ethnicity, and those who were of the ‘wrong’ nationality and ethnicity were summarily executed.
Furthermore the investigators reported that Radio Bentiu FM was also used to fan hate speech, as it was used to call for the expulsion of other ethnic groups and even encouraged people to rape the women of such ethnic groups. Oddly, some commanders had earlier used the radio station to urge people to unite and shun tribalism; this divergent usage suggests the armed opposition is a band of disparate groups with differing motivations.
According to Radio Dabanga, a Darfur (Sudan)-based station, the number of victims as of Monday this week was at 406, of which at least 27 were Darfuris. Bentiu is close to the international border with Sudan, and reportedly had 1373 foreigners, most of them Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Ugandans and Kenyans. The station reported that some Kenyans and Ugandans were executed, but Ethiopians were spared.
The greatest single incident of mass killing during the violent takeover was in Bentiu’s Grand Mosque, where more than 200 people died as the mosque was shelled and barraged with small arms fire. One of the Darfuri survivors claims that the rebels targeted anyone who was thought to be Darfuri, who happen to be predominantly Muslim. This claim seems corroborated by the statement of a South Sudan government official in hiding. This survivor also claimed that the Nuer White Army and people in Sudanese Army fatigues were on the ground in the confrontation.
However, a spokesman for the SPLA in Opposition refuted the accusation they engaged in the slaughter of non-combatants, claiming instead that they were fighting mercenaries from Sudan, which would imply the involvement of the Sudan-based Justice and Equality Movement (from the Darfur and Kordofan region), and maybe SPLM-N (from the Nuba region). The government on the other hand has claimed that the SPLA-in-Opposition had actually been trained in Sudan and took over Bentiu with the help of Janjaweed militia, better known as the ‘devils on horseback’ that are razing much of Darfur.
The mosque wasn’t the only place to bear the brunt of such sacrilegious attacks; people were also killed in a local Catholic church, an abandoned UN WFP compound, and the Abiemnhom Hospital, where around 47 Nuers were killed, for hiding instead of coming out to cheer the victorious SPLA-in-Opposition.
A regional UN base is now home to more than 22,000 refugees, and it would seem that the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement that was meant to set a roadmap to peace in South Sudan is not worth the paper it’s written on, and the nascent nation could be getting itself tangled in a regional conflict involving Sudan.
By Matengo Chwanya