NAIROBI, Kenya – A U.S. satellite monitoring group released images Thursday that it fears show a mass grave in Sudan, saying witnesses also have described 100 or more bodies being thrown into a pit in the same area.
The Satellite Sentinel Project images show what appear to be freshly dug sites in Southern Kordofan state, where Sudan's Arab military has been targeting a black ethnic minority loyal to the military of the newly independent Republic of South Sudan.
"The DigitalGlobe satellite images contain many of the details and hallmarks of the mass atrocities described by at least five eyewitnesses to the alleged killings," said Nathaniel A. Raymond, of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which analyzes the project's images.
Fighting broke out in the region on June 5. Neither the U.N., outside aid groups nor journalists have access to the region, raising fears that more violence is being carried out than is known publicly.
A spokesman for Sudan's ruling party denied the project's allegations and said the area is accessible to observers, though aid groups say it is not.
"Even if there is any suspicion on such pictures, people can go there and visit the area and see what is the actual reality," said Rabie A. Atti, National Congress Party spokesman. "I think this is only rumors trying to, you know, blacken the people of our government."
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who has written a book on the atrocities in the western Sudan's Darfur region and is following the violence in Kordofan, said reports have been coming out of the Nuba Mountains for weeks of targeted killings.
He had not seen the satellite photos when contacted late Wednesday but said the satellite project had an "impeccable" record of interpreting previous satellite images from Sudan, particularly the contested region of Abyei.
"No one will be able to express skepticism after the confirmation of mass graves. We've had these reports for weeks now, and they keep coming," said Reeves. "We now have, if not a smoking gun, satellite confirmation of ethnically targeted extermination efforts."
The satellite group said three excavated areas measuring about 26 yards by 5 yards are visible near a school in the town of Kadugli. The group said that an eyewitness reported seeing 100 bodies or more put into one of the pits on June 8.
After the violence broke out, the U.N. said at least 73,000 people had fled the region. Many of the displaced are ethnic Nuba who have long been marginalized. They are mostly seeking shelter in nearby communities or hiding out in the Nuba Mountains where they have no access to medical assistance, food and clean water.
A U.N. report obtained by The Associated Press last month said that Sudanese intelligence agents posed as Red Crescent workers and ordered refugees to leave a U.N.-protected camp in Southern Kordofan. The U.N. report contained no information about what happened to those people afterward.
The satellite project said it was told by an eyewitness that Sudanese Armed Forces troops, militia fighters, men in brown uniforms consisted with those worn by prisoners and individuals dressed in a manner consistent with Sudan Red Crescent Society workers were seen driving large green trucks close to the alleged mass grave site.
Because the authorities in Southern Kordofan are barring international aid agencies from entering the region, and journalists are not able to safely access it. Activists fear the Khartoum government is carrying out targeted killings like those in Darfur over the last decade.
"Men at the site were reportedly unloading dead bodies from the trucks and depositing them in the open pits. The individual claims to have seen some bodies in what appeared to be bags," said the report.
The project did not identify any witnesses or its means of communicating with them for fear of reprisal attacks.
Reeves said that his contacts in Kadugli have reported security roadblocks, house-to-house searches for supporters of the South Sudan military, and executions on the street.
"What's happening beyond Kadugli, beyond the Nuba Mountains, in places we haven't heard of, is that these Nuba people are being exterminated," he said.
The Nuba people have been targeted by Khartoum before. Reeves said that during killings in the 1990s, information from the region was sealed tight, and that no one knew the killings were taking place for two or three years.
"It was a black box genocide, as Darfur is becoming a black box genocide, and as I will predict will happen in Kordofan in the next couple months."