By Heidi Vogt in Juba, South Sudan and Joe Lauria in New York/Reuters
Displaced families are camped near Juba international airport on Tuesday. REUTERS
Mass grave found, evidence of ethnically targeted killings
The United Nations voted Tuesday to send thousands more peacekeepers to South Sudan as the organization said it had found evidence of mass killings along ethnic lines in the country.
The U.N. Security Council voted to nearly double its international troops in the country to about 13,800, including 12,500 military and 1,323 international police.
Before the council voted, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the organization had found at least one mass grave in South Sudan as well as evidence of ethnically targeted killings and arbitrary detentions.
On Tuesday, the U.S. military’s Africa Command moved a KC-130 transport plane and around 50 troops from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, to Entebbe, Uganda, the Pentagon said.
The move will allow the Pentagon to send more military personnel to South Sudan more quickly if they are needed to help protect U.S. personnel and facilities in the country, defense officials said.
Fighting appeared to be spreading and showed no sign of letting up. The government claimed its first victory since clashes began in the capital Juba on Dec. 15. It said its forces had retaken Bor, the capital of South Sudan’s largest state, after a day of heavy fighting.
The world’s youngest country has been teetering on the edge of civil war since clashes erupted over a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, ahead of a 2015 election. The violence quickly descended into battles between the two largest ethnic groups—the Dinka and the Nuer. Mr. Kiir is a Dinka while Mr. Machar is a Nuer.
In the face of the burgeoning violence, U.S. officials Tuesday intensified pressure on both government officials and opposition leaders in South Sudan to cease hostilities and begin negotiations in the presence of international mediators.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke Tuesday with leaders across Africa as well as to the president of South Sudan and the country’s chief opposition leader, U.S. officials said. He also spoke with Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar, to urge political talks.
“The United States urges all parties in the crisis in South Sudan to implement an immediate cessation of hostilities,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said. “This will offer critical humanitarian access to populations in dire need and open a space for a mediated political dialogue between the opposing sides.”
The U.S. envoy to South Sudan, Donald Booth, already is in the country in an effort to start talks. Mr. Kerry said the talks should be overseen by a group of African countries known as the Inter-Governmental Authority for Government, which includes Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia and others.
“We hope and pray today that the leaders of South Sudan will acknowledge the international community’s commitment and understand that those who seek to take or hold power by violence or division along ethnic lines will not have our support and may be in violation of international law,” Ms. Psaki said. “Violence today will not pave the way for a more stable or prosperous tomorrow.”
Senior U.S. officials played a direct role in the creation of the country in 2011.
More than 500 people have died so far, but the toll is almost certainly much higher. Military spokesman Col. Philip Arguer said he had no estimate beyond 450 dead in Juba. However fierce fighting has spread well beyond the capital, across large swaths of the country.
About 81,000 people have been displaced, 45,000 of them sheltering at U.N. camps inside the country, the U.N. humanitarian agency said.
Sudan’s Tumultuous History
Review events on the fragmented political situation of South Sudan, which broke away from Sudan in 2011 and the repeated clashes with its neighbor over oil production and exports.
“We are now facing one of the largest emerging humanitarian crises,” said Toby Lanzer, the U.N. deputy representative to South Sudan. He said the violence was “quickly evolving to affect, not tens of thousands of people, but I expect hundreds of thousands of people.”
Reacting to the Security Council vote Tuesday, Iain Levine, deputy executive director of programs at Human Rights Watch, said, “Council members should remind President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar that they will be held accountable for abuses committed by the troops under their control. U.N. peacekeepers should continue to provide protection for civilians at risk including through robust patrols.”
Mr. Pillay said the U.N. had found at least one mass grave in the capital of Unity state, Bentiu, which has been seized by mutinous Nuer forces.
“We have discovered a mass grave in Bentiu, in Unity state, and there are reportedly at least two other mass graves in Juba,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many bodies were in the grave. A spokeswoman for Mr. Pillay, Ravina Shamdasani, said there may be as many as 75, based on the number of soldiers from Mr. Kiir’s Dinka group reported missing in the area. At least 14 bodies were in one gravesite and another 20 at a riverside nearby, the spokeswoman said.
Mr. Pillay also raised concerns about the safety of people who have been arrested and are being held in unknown locations, including several hundred civilians reportedly seized during house-to-house searches and from various hotels in Juba.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warned that the strengthening of protection capabilities won’t happen overnight.
“Even with additional capabilities, we won’t be able to protect every civilian in need in South Sudan,” he told reporters.
Mr. Ban said he had spoken to many African leaders on Tuesday urging them to make their troops available for the increased deployment, some from neighboring U.N. missions such as in Congo.
“We need at least five battalions and police officers and attack helicopters and utility helicopters, transport airplanes,” Mr. Ban said.
Amid reports that the government had given an ultimatum before moving into the town of Bentui with force, Mr. Ban said, “There is no military solution. I am urging again that the leaders, whatever their differences may be, should start dialogue immediately.”
John Watt, Oxfam’s deputy regional director for East Africa, who is in South Sudan, said, “Troops brought in should…ensure civilians are protected in and around U.N. bases throughout the country, and in the capital Juba where over 30,000 people have fled to for safety.”
The conflict, meanwhile, was spreading to new areas. On Tuesday, government troops and rebel forces battled in the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state in the northeast.
Bor, the capital of eastern Jonglei state, witnessed heavy fighting in recent days and was seen as a stronghold for the rebel troops. It was in Bor that American evacuation planes came under fire last week and had to abort their mission, leaving four American service members wounded.
“Bor is now under the control of the SPLA (South Sudanese government forces),” Col. Arguer said. “The final attack started at 1 o’clock and the fighting took us about five hours.”
Rebel troops fled to the east of the city, he said.
About 17,000 people are sheltering at the U.N. base in Bor, and the camp was being reinforced with additional protective barriers and more peacekeepers, the U.N. said.
The victory at Bor could not be independently verified and it wasn’t clear whether retaking the town would be enough to turn back the wave of ethnic killings that has swept the country.
The U.S. decided on Monday to send 150 more Marines and several aircraft to a base in the Horn of Africa in case they are needed, reflecting growing concerns about threats to American civilians who remain in the country.
Diplomats have urged talks for days with no discernible progress. Mr. Kiir has said he is ready for negotiations with no preconditions, but has asked the same of his former deputy. But Mr. Machar has said he would only enter talks once 11 of his detained compatriots are released.
The country’s military spokesman said authorities were investigating allegations that Dinka soldiers allied with the president were pursuing Nuer in Juba.
“Our discipline isn’t perfect,” Col. Arguer said in a phone interview. “We have received those disturbing reports that there have been some groups in uniform that have attacked some Nuer families.”
He said they arrested some soldiers because of the allegations, but didn’t know how many.
Rebel forces attacked the town of Malakal in Upper Nile state but government forces beat them back, Col. Arguer said. He said he didn’t have a death toll or further details about the fighting in the remote eastern corner of the country.
“Malakal is still chaotic and there are undisciplined elements that have been reported to be shooting in the market,” Col. Arguer said.
The U.N. confirmed sporadic fighting in Upper Nile and sustained fighting in another five of South Sudan’s 10 states—Central Equatoria, Eastern Equatoria, Jonglei, Unity and Warrap. The areas where fighting is reported encompass the eastern half of the country.