JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN // About 75 bodies have been found in a mass grave in South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity State.
Two other mass graves have been reported in the capital, Juba, after ethnic violence, the United Nations said yesterday.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called on both sides in the tribal war to protect civilians and warned that political and military leaders could be held to account for crimes.
“Mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days,” Ms Pillay said.
“We have discovered a mass grave in Bentiu, in Unity State, and there are reportedly at least two other mass graves in Juba.”
As fighting continued South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, said his forces had retaken the rebel-held town of Bor in the central Jonglei State.
Mr Kiir and the rebel leader Riek Machar, his former deputy, have both indicated they were ready to talk to try to end a deepening conflict that has killed hundreds of people since it erupted this month.
Western powers and east African states, anxious to prevent the 10-day-old crisis from destabilising a particularly fragile region, have tried to mediate between Mr Machar, who hails from the Nuer tribe, and Mr Kiir, a Dinka.
The two men have agreed to meet but the specifics, including the status of Mr Machar’s jailed political allies, are holding up talks.
Mr Machar said again yesterday that he was ready for talks and they would probably be held in Ethiopia.
“Yes we are ready for talks. I have formed my delegation,” he said.
“I also spoke this morning to Secretary of State John Kerry and I spoke to the foreign minister of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia, explained to him my readiness for talks.”
He said he would not take part in the talks but had formed a “very high-level delegation … with powers to reach agreement”.
“We want a democratic nation. We want democratic free and fair elections. We want Salva Kiir to call it a day.”
Mr Machar said the talks should be held on “neutral ground”. Asked specifically if he was considering Ethiopia, he said: “That’s the idea. Ethiopia, yes.”
It is unclear what effect the discovery of the mass graves will have on prospects for talks.
UN spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said the bodies of 75 ethnic Dinka, who were members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, were believed to be in the mass grave in Bentiu visited by UN rights officers.
“They are reportedly all of Dinka ethnicity,” Ms Shamdasani said, but the UN team had been unable to verify the numbers or identities.
The government minister of information, Michael Makuei Lueth, said: “Of course Bentiu is under the control of the rebel leader Riek Machar, so we have nothing to do with that area.”
UN rights officers had not yet been able to visit the sites of two other mass graves, Jebel-Kujur and Newside, near Eden, both in Juba, Ms Shamdasani said.
Ms Pillay, a former UN war crimes judge, voiced deep concern about the safety of those arrested who are being held in unknown locations, including “several hundred civilians who were reportedly arrested during house-to-house searches and from various hotels in Juba”. Hundreds of members of the South Sudan National Police Service were ordered to be disarmed and arrested from police stations across Juba, she said.
The UN has staff in the country investigating the incidents of mass killings, said Ms Pillay. It is unclear who is responsible, she said.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon sought urgently on Monday to nearly double the size of the UN peacekeeping force in the country.
The report of the mass grave came as Mr Kiir said government forces had take control of Bor, a key town that rebels loyal to Mr Machar seized last week.
“Forces loyal to the government have taken Bor and are now clearing whatever forces that are remaining there,” Mr Kiir said.
“The army captured Bor around sunset and the rebel forces are now on the run … we are back in control,” said Mr Lueth. “This is the gift of the government of South Sudan to the people.”
However, while claiming the army was now back in full control, the Mr Lueth also said that “shooting continued”, without giving further details.
Bor’s capture, apparently without major resistance by the rebels, lifts nearly a week-long seige of the town, where some 17,000 civilians fled into the overstretched UN peacekeeping compound for protection, severely stretching limited food and supplies.
UN peacekeepers had spent days bolstering fortifications ahead of the army assault.
The country’s top UN humanitarian official, Toby Lanzer, said on Monday that he believes the death toll from 10 days of violence has surpassed 1,000 but that there are no firm counts.
Mr Lanzer estimated that there are more than 100,000 internally displaced people across the country seeking shelter from the violence.
South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 after a bloody 22-year civil war left more than a million people dead.
* Reuters, Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse