South Sudanese rebels have denied UN accusations they massacred hundreds of civilians in ethnic killings when they captured the oil town of Bentiu in Unity state last week.
James Gatdet Dak, spokesman for rebel leader Riek Machar, told DW's James Shimanyula that "there were purely military combatants who participated in the fighting between us and the government. We did not target any civilians. If there were some civilians killed, this could have been crossfire."
Another rebel spokesman blamed the government.
"The government forces and their allies committed these heinous crimes while retreating," Lul Ruai Koang said in a statement quoted by the news agency AFP.
Dak claimed that fighters from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), operating out of Darfur in Sudan, had joined forces with the South Sudan army in Bentiu. South Sudan's foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin alleged meanwhile that the Khartoum-backed Janjaweed militia had entered the town to fight alongside Riek Machar's rebels.
UN human rights investigators said that after rebels wrested Bentiu from government forces in heavy battles last Tuesday (15.04.2014), the gunmen spent two days hunting down those who they believed opposed them.
The UN report said the killings continued after the army had fled the town and that in the main mosque alone "more than 200 civilians were reportedly killed and over 400 wounded."
Fighters took to the radio to urge men to rape women from the opposition ethnic group and said rival groups should be forced from the town, the report said.
Civilians including children were also massacred at a church, hospital and an abandoned UN World Food Program compound, it added.
"Tactical withdrawal" by government forces
Toby Lanzer, the top UN aid official in the country, said after visiting Bentiu he had witnessed the "most terrible sight." He reported seeing "piles of bodies lining the streets where they had been executed, in the market, outside and inside places of worship, the majority wearing civilian clothes."
Rebel spokesman Koang rejected UN claims the rebels had used hate radio to encourage men to rape.
"On the use of Bentiu Radio, our forces and commanders use it to purely broadcast messages of peace, love and unity, not hate speech," Koang claimed.
South Sudan army spokesman Philip Aguer said the battles had been very heavy in Unity state adding that troops made a "tactical withdrawal" from the town of Mayom, a strategic local center made up of dusty roads and thatch huts, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Bentiu. Heavy fighting was also reported in Jonglei and Upper Nile states where Aguer claimed the army had repulsed attacks and killed scores of rebels.
Peace talks to resume
South Sudan's army has been fighting rebels loyal to sacked vice president Riek Machar since the unrest broke out more than four months ago.
The conflict has an ethnic dimension, pitting President Salva Kiir's Dinka tribe against militia forces from Machar's Nuer people.
Peace talks are due to restart in Addis Ababa in neighboring Ethiopia later this month, and despite the worsening conflict, South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makuei said the government remained committed. "What we want is peace, not war. We will still go and negotiate," he said.
But Peter Schumann, a former head of the UN mission in southern Sudan, told DW "armed groups are fighting simply on the basis of rumors or suspicions. The political talks in Addis - even if they were to resume to tomorrow - I don't think they would stop the fighting."