July 10, 2018 / 9:53 AM / 11 days ago

South Sudan government forces, allies killed hundreds of civilians: U.N.

GENEVA (Reuters) - At least 232 civilians were killed and 120 women and girls raped in “scorched earth” attacks by South Sudan government troops and aligned forces in opposition-held villages earlier this year, the U.N. human rights office said on Tuesday.

A United Nations investigation identified three commanders suspected of bearing the “greatest responsibility” in the violence in Unity state between April 16 and May 24 that may amount to war crimes, it said in a report.

Elderly and disabled civilians were burned alive in the attack on 40 villages, which appeared aimed at driving out opposition forces, it said. A further 132 women and girls were abducted in the assault that forced 31,140 people to flee.

“The perpetrators ...must not be allowed to get away with it,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein in a statement.

Reiterating his call on the government and African Union to establish a hybrid court for South Sudan, he said the soldiers and aligned forces slit elderly villagers’ throats, hanged women for resisting looting and shot fleeing civilians.

“The brutality and ruthlessness of the attackers as described by the survivors suggests that their intent was to take a ‘scorched earth’ approach, killing or forcibly displacing people, burning their crops and homes, punishing and terrorizing them to ensure that they never return,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told a briefing.

The U.N. report said opposition forces had also carried out armed attacks that caused civilian casualties.

A spokesman for the South Sudanese army said it would respond once the military leadership had received the report.

“I will look for the report and bring it to the attention of the military leadership so that we give our response,” Brig. Gen Lul Ruai Koang, SPLA Army spokesperson, told Reuters in Juba.

Shamdasani said that the report had been shared with the government, adding: “We understand this has resulted in one of these commanders being removed from his functions for his implication in these violations.”

There were also unconfirmed reports of that commander being put under house arrest, she said.

“So there does seem to be some movement, we are encouraged by this and we hope that there will be stronger, more robust and more of such actions,” she said.

On Monday, South Sudan rebels rejected a peace plan to reinstate insurgent leader Riek Machar as vice president, under a deal reached at talks in Uganda a day before.

Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Denis Dumo in Juba; editing by John Stonestreet

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