BENTIU, South Sudan – Hundreds of unarmed civilians from South Sudan and abroad have been brutally killed inside a mosque, church and a hospital after rebel forces captured the city of Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity state.
"We believe that at least 400 people were killed in Bentiu in the past week," Toby Lanzer, the top United Nations official in South Sudan, told CNN on Wednesday, April 23.
The massacre occured when rebel forces seized the key town on 15 and 16 April, searching a number of places where hundreds of South Sudanese and foreign civilians had taken refuge.
Residents sought shelter in churches, mosques and hospitals when the rebels raided Bentiu town, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said.
Non-Nuer South Sudanese and foreign nationals were singled out and killed, Unmiss said.
Some 200 civilians were reportedly killed at the Kali-Ballee mosque where they had sought shelter.
At the hospital, Nuer men, women and children, who hid rather than cheer the rebel forces as they entered the town, were also killed, it said.
"These atrocities must be fully investigated and the perpetrators and their commanders shall be held accountable", said the Officer in Charge of UNMISS, Raisedon Zenenga, in a press release by UNMISS on Monday, April 21.
Along with horrifying reports of mass killings, the UN mission lamented the fact that rebel forces used local radio stations to broadcast hate speech, saying certain groups should leave the town and urging men to rape women.
South Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries, was thrown into turmoil last December when presidential guards splintered and fought along ethnic lines.
The Nuer community backs rebel leader Riek Machar while his rival, President Salva Kiir, is a Dinka.
Although both men have prominent supporters from various communities, there have been numerous reports of rebels killing ethnic Dinkas and the army targeting Nuers since the conflict broke out.
Since then, more than a million people have fled their homes in what was already among the world's poorest nations.
Visiting the scene of the killings on Monday and Tuesday, the UN's top humanitarian official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, described horrifying scenes of death.
The scenes in Bentiu were "perhaps [the] most shocking set of circumstances" he had ever faced, Lanzer told the BBC's Focus on Africa program.
He said he saw "piles of [the bodies of] people who had been slaughtered" last week, adding that they all appeared to be civilians.
Many of those killed were Sudanese traders, especially from Darfur, Lanzer said.
The UN officials added that the situation in South Sudan is "in a downward spiral", describing the stakes as "very, very high".
Moreover, he warned that the conflict has driven more than 22,000 people to seek refuge at the UN peacekeeping base over the border in Sudan, including families from the majority community in the state.
He added that the UN base was not built for such large numbers, and that there was currently only one litre of drinking water for each of the 22,000 civilians in the base, and one latrine for every 350 people.
"When I asked them why [they were seeking refuge] they said: 'When the violence has such a cycle of revenge you can't tell what will come next'," Lanzer said.
In the United States, the Obama administration said it was "horrified" by reports of hundreds massacred.
"Images and accounts of the attacks shock the conscience: stacks of bodies found dead inside a mosque, patients murdered at a hospital, and dozens more shot and killed in the streets and at a church -- apparently due to their ethnicity and nationality -- while hate speech was broadcast on local radio," the White House said in a statement.
"This is exactly the violence and suffering the South Sudanese people fought for decades to escape."
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