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South Sudan releases UN peacekeepers, contractors still detained

Rebels in South Sudan have freed UN peacekeepers after seizing a fuel barge, but have not released crew members. The UN is "extremely concerned" about its contractors amidst reports of war crimes in the volatile country.

Rebels in South Sudan released 18 United Nations peacekeepers who were seized on a fuel barge on the river Nile, confirmed the UN on Friday. UN spokeswoman Ariane Quentier said that the peacekeepers were released on Thursday after being held for three days – 12 South Sudanese UN contractors have yet to be released.

"They haven't released the barge, they haven't released the equipment, they haven't released the South Sudanese crew members," she said. The UN further stated that they are "extremely concerned" about the fuel barge contractors, warning that "attacks against peacekeepers and other U.N. staff can constitute war crimes."

Rebel spokesman William Gatjiat said the fuel barge was seized on Monday because it was flying a "confusing" flag. According to the UN, over 100 rebels detained the barge, which was traveling from Juba to Upper Nile State, and stole the fuel it was transporting.

Additionally, the UN mission in South Sudan denied that the vessel was carrying a shipment of weapons, maintaining that the fuel and equipment on board was solely for UN use.

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Reports of forced cannibalism

Multiple reports of human rights abuses and accusations of war crimes were released this week as well. An African Union report claims that civilians have been forced to commit acts of cannibalism, as a result of the conflict.

The aid organization Doctors without Borders (MSF) said the violence in South Sudan has resulted in "an unprecedented humanitarian crisis." Teams in the northern Unity State "hear daily reports of extortions, abductions, mass rapes and killings, and witnessed villages burnt to the ground and crops looted and destroyed."

"MSF has not seen this level of violence and brutality before," emergency manager Tara Newell said.

A political struggle between President President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Machar led to a civil war in 2013 and rekindled old ethnic disputes between Kiir's Dinka and Machar's Nuer people. A peace deal in August has halted the violence, which has resulted in ethnic massacres and widespread gang rape.

More than 10,000 people have been killed so far with over 2 million displaced. Around 13,000 UN peacekeepers are still protecting and lodging more than 100,000 people in South Sudan.

rs/jm (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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