JOHANNESBURG – South Sudan government troops and allied fighters killed at least 232 civilians in a five-week period this year, hanging some people from trees and burning others alive, according to a United Nations report released Tuesday.
The report is the latest snapshot of the widespread atrocities committed in the world's youngest nation over its five-year civil war. It says the "deliberate, ruthless" attacks may amount to war crimes.
Human rights monitors for the U.N. found that at least 120 women and girls were raped or gang-raped between April 16 and May 24. The rape victims included children as young as 4, and some sexual assault targets were shot dead for resisting, the U.N. monitors reported.
"One 20-year-old woman was still bleeding from childbirth when she was raped," the report states.
Other findings from the five-week tally were:
— At least 132 women and girls were abducted for suspected sex slavery or servitude.
— Some elderly, sick and disabled people who could not flee were burned alive.
— At least 10 children, including a 7-day-old baby, drowned in swamps as people fled.
— In all, more than 30,000 people were displaced during a "scorched-earth" campaign in opposition-held areas in Leer and Mayendit, part of a South Sudan military operation after clashes with the rebels.
The intent was to "cleanse those areas," the report said, citing accounts from more than 75 interviews with victims and witnesses.
"There must be consequences for the men who reportedly gang-raped a 6-year-old child, who slit the throats of elderly villagers, who hanged women for resisting looting, and shot fleeing civilians in the swamps where they hid," U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
He called on South Sudan and the African Union to establish a long-delayed hybrid court to help hold perpetrators accountable.
The report comes as South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar hold talks in pursuit of a new peace agreement while international pressure grows on them either to end the fighting or face possible U.N. or regional sanctions.
However, a "permanent" cease-fire they signed was violated within hours of coming into effect on June 30.
A South Sudan military spokesman called the new report "damaging."
"We shall go through it and compare what they're claiming to have been done with the reality on the ground so we can know for sure whether the report has substance or if it's far-fetched," spokesman Lul Ruai Koang told The Associated Press.
Both sides have been blamed for atrocities in South Sudan's civil war. The conflict began in late 2013, just two years after the country won independence from Sudan. Tens of thousands have been killed and millions have fled, creating Africa's largest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
While the new report largely blames government forces, it says the fighting was part of a large cycle of violence in which opposition fighters also caused "civilian casualties."
Associated Press writer Sam Mednick in Barcelona, Spain contributed.
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