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South Sudan

Kiir denies 'ethnic cleansing' underway in S. Sudan

UN human rights experts told journalists Friday that "ethnic cleansing" was under way in South Sudan. President Salva Kiir strongly denied the allegations.

Experts from the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan held a press conference in Nairobi Friday to raise an alarm on the unfolding crisis in South Sudan. The commission warned that the international community is casting a blind eye on South Sudan while focusing their attention on the crisis in Syria.

Their findings come after a group of monitors visited isolated parts of the country where violence has reportedly soared since a peace deal between President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar collapsed in July.

Kenneth Scott, one of the commissioners, said that South Sudan might not be "a Rwanda situation yet" but if nothing changes then a genocide might be witnessed in the young country.

"We still have some time if we act quickly and we act robustly," he said. "So we don't want to say that the genocide is happening now but the stage certainly appears to be set."

Scott asserted that countries in the region like Kenya and the wider international community have an obligation to act to stop the bloodshed, gang rape, looting and ethnic cleansing that's already ongoing in South Sudan.

"We believe that that is what is happening in some parts of South Sudan this time, that is ethnic cleansing and it involves the displacement of populations among ethnic lines," he added.

Südsudan Rebellenführer Riek Machar in Juba (Reuters/Stringer)

The recent conflict between Riek Machar (middle) and President Salva Kiir (right) has been going on since 2013

Much of the fighting continues to be between the Dinka-dominated government army under Kiir and rebels from Machar's Nuer tribe. As the conflict spreads into other regions of the country, including the state of Greater Equatoria, other tribes are being pulled into the violence.

A flood of refugees

Keith Harper, the US ambassador to the UN rights council warned that the South Sudanese government appeared to be preparing for large-scale attacks, and had in the past two weeks, mobilized at least 4,000 militia fighters to the southern Equatoria region.

South Sudan's UN Ambassador Kuol Alor Kuol Arop denied any build-up of forces or plans for an offensive in an interview with the AP.

Violence has driven tens of thousands of people from the country into neighboring Uganda in recent months. According to the commission, this number includes one-third of the teachers in South Sudan who fled with their families. Others who can afford it are sending their children to study abroad in neighboring countries.

"Hardly anyone remembers that South Sudan is also one of four countries worldwide to have generated more than 1 million refugees outside of South Sudan," said Yasmin Sooka, the chairperson of the team of UN experts. "A quarter of the population is already internally displaced - more than 3 million people. That is a staggering number."

Women are a target

The commission said that the pattern of sexual violence targeting women all over the country has worsened as rape is being used as one of the tools of ethnic cleansing. Sooka, together with her colleagues, visited numerous protection sites for civilians. Most of the victims told the UN that the main perpetrators were from armed groups with most being attached to the ruling government.

Südsudan Flüchtlinge suchen Schutz UN-Mission in Juba (picture-alliance/dpa/UNMISS/E. Kanalstein)

UNHCR estimates that over 1 million refugees have fled South Sudan since 2013

"The scale of rape of women and girls perpetrated by all armed groups in South Sudan is utterly unacceptable and is frankly mind-boggling," said Sooka.

Some women were reportedly unable to receive medical treatment for complications suffered after sexual attacks.

"Aid workers describe gang rape as so prevalent that it's become 'normal' in this warped environment," added Sooka.

The commission is mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor and report on the human rights situation in South Sudan and provide guidance to the Transitional Government of National Unity of South Sudan on transitional justice and accountability. It will present its report on the situation in South Sudan to the Human Rights Council in March 2017.

Andrew Wasike contributed to this article.

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