Gunmen in South Sudan torched towns and looted aid groups during the latest government offensive toward the rebel stronghold of Leer, UN officials and diplomats have said. Aid agencies are pulling out of the region.
At least 28 towns and villages in South Sudan's oil-rich Unity State have been attacked in less then two weeks, UN said Tuesday, with over 100,000 people pushed out of their homes.
According to the UN peacekeeping mission, reports from the battleground state included "towns and villages being burned, killings, abductions of males as young as 10 years of age, rape and abduction of girls and women, and the forced displacement of civilians."
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said it appeared the perpetrators of the attacks were soldiers with the South Sudan Army (SPLA) and mobilized youths "clad in civilian clothes, wielding AK-47s."
"Whenever fighting intensifies between government and opposition forces, the civilian population bears the brunt," he told a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday.
Government forces, loyal to President Salva Kiir, have recently started moving towards the town of Leer in Unity state, which is controlled by rebels supporting the former vice president, Riek Machar. The government's push is one of the heaviest offensives since the civil war erupted almost a year and a half ago.
Running to the swamps
Young boys have been abducted to serve as child soldiers during recent weeks, the UN said, while aid organizations said that their bases have been looted. Over 300,000 civilians have been left without "life-saving aid" in the state, with UN and aid agencies moving their staff out of the region.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also pulled out their activists out of Leer, warning of a new exodus from the rebel held city.
Some 120,000 displaced people were being sheltered in Leer, ICRC chief in South Sudan Franz Rauchenstein told AFP, adding that "now they were moving out into the swamps to hide, where they have no access to food or healthcare."
South Sudan's government said on Tuesday that rebels were behind the surge in fighting and accused them of planning more attacks in Unity and Upper Nile states, where the oil-fields are located.
Government military spokesman Philip Aguer also cast doubt on the number of displaced people.
"Fighting has not reached the area of Leer, and I don't think the populations should run," because civilians were not being targeted, he told Reuters.
The civil war in South Sudan has killed tens of thousands of people, and some 2.5 million facing the risk of famine, according to the UN.
Multiple ceasefire deals have so far proven ineffective.
dj/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP)