April 23, 2014 (JUBA) – The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has disputed “erroneous” comments by the minister of information that it turned civilians away from its base in Unity state capital Bentiu during recent clashes between government forces and rebels for control of the strategic town.
- A UNMISS-supplied photo showing peacekeepers evacuating civilians in Bentiu, the capital of South Sudan’s Unity state, which was the scene of recent ethnically motivated attacks
Michael Makuei Lueth told a press conference on Wednesday that many civilians who fled to the UN compound after violence broke out on 15 and 16 April were instead directed to shelter at the local mosque, hospital or inside churches.
More than 200 civilians were reportedly killed and more than 400 wounded while sheltering at the mosque after rebels aligned with former vice-president retook Bentiu from government forces.
“As usual, citizens, all the time, ran to the UNMISS compound for protection, so that they feel safe. Of the citizens who decided to run to the UNMISS compound, a few were allowed to enter. The others were not allowed to enter by UNMISS,” Lueth told reporters.
“Those unfortunate, innocent, unarmed civilians were slaughtered by the rebel forces in the mosque, in the churches and in the hospital”.
However, in a statement issued on Wednesday, UNMISS said that at no point did it turn away any civilians seeking protection at the site.
“Since 15 April, the number of civilians accommodated in the UNMISS base north of Bentiu rose from about 8,000 to approximately 22,500 today (Wednesday),” the statement said, adding that its peacekeepers had gone to the main hospital and the Kali-Ballee Mosque to extract civilians trapped at the sites after learning of the attacks.
UNMISS distributed photos to media which appear to show its troops extracting hundreds of civilians from the hospital.
“All told, over 500 trapped civilians were extracted by UNMISS from the hospital and other places and taken to the protection of civilians site in the mission’s base,” its statement adds.
The body also expressed concern over remarks by the minister that soldiers who claimed to have returned to the South Sudanese army (SPLA) then rebelled again with support from internally displaced persons (IDPs) living inside the UNMISS camp and attacked Bentiu.
“The mission is concerned that the remarks associating the IDPs with a particular military group could place all of them at risk of being targeted and attacked,” the statement said.
“The mission wishes to emphasise the primary responsibility of the South Sudanese authorities for protecting all of their country’s civilian population and particularly the vulnerable, who include the displaced in UNMISS camps,” it adds.
- It is alleged that civilians sheltering at Bentiu’s main hospital were deliberately targeted in the latest outbreak of ethnically motivated violence in South Sudan (Photo: UNMISS)
It is alleged rebel forces in Bentiu conducted searches and carried out targeted killings of civilians after determining their ethnicity or nationality.
Images to emerge from the town show the bodies of the dead lying outside the mosque and scattered in the streets.
It has also been alleged that hate speech was broadcast on local radio, inciting violence and urging local men to rape Nuer women.
Political tensions in South Sudan erupted in violence in mid-December last year, with the conflict taking on on a disturbing ethnic dimension as loyalties divided along Kiir’s Dinka tribe and Machar’s Nuer ethnic group.
The latest outbreak of ethnic violence has shattered a January ceasefire deal signed between the South Sudanese government and the Machar-led Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition, sparking international condemnation.
The chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, described the targeting of civilians as a “dastardly act”, while the US issued a strongly worded statement saying the accounts emerging from Bentiu “shock the conscience”.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said the killings may constitute a war crime and has called for an immediate investigation.