LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Warring parties in South Sudan’s eight-month-old conflict have committed "extraordinary acts of cruelty" that amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
Abuses in Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity State which has changed hands four times in the fighting, have been particularly heinous.
"Military offensives by both opposition and government forces have been accompanied by targeting of civilians, often on the basis of their ethnicity," said the report.
"Attacks by government forces on Bentiu town, and villages and towns in southern Unity state, have also included massive burning and widespread pillage of civilian property."
South Sudan’s war was triggered by a political dispute between President Salva Kiir from the Dinka ethnic group and former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer.
Fighting subsequently broke out across much of the east of the country, the world’s youngest, which seceded from Sudan in 2011.
One-and-a-half million people have been forced from their homes according to HRW estimates, and at least 10,000 have been killed.
"The crimes against civilians in South Sudan over the past months, including ethnic killings, will resonate for decades," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"The violence in towns like Bentiu, Bor, and Malakal has been less fighting between the forces than targeted killings of civilians who could not flee, and massive looting and destruction."
In some cases, the abuses have amounted to potential crimes against humanity, the HRW report said.
‘STANDING WITH THEIR INFANTS IN THEIR ARMS’
Ivan Gayton is an emergency coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Bentiu, where about 40,000 people are currently crowded into a flooded U.N.compound.
"Most of the camp is now knee-deep in sewage, thousands of people cannot lay down and therefore sleep standing up with their infants in their arms," he said.
"More than one third of residents here are children under five years old. We have seen over 200 deaths in our hospital since May 2014, most of them children."
Gayton described the siege-like nature of the United Nations Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS) camps, with armed men lurking outside.
"Civilians entering and exiting the camp are subjected to violence and harassment from armed men positioned a few meters outside the front gate," he said.
"Women and girls searching for firewood outside the camp are at particular risk of sexual violence, and MSF has treated several survivors already."
U.N. Security Council ambassadors are visiting South Sudan and neighbouring countries this week.
(Editing by Ros Russell, firstname.lastname@example.org)