Juba: Women gang raped and then executed in their hospital beds, worshippers gunned down in a church, children executed: details are emerging of yet more atrocities committed amid South Sudan`s slide into carnage.
According to witnesses, aid workers and other independent sources, the battle for the key northern oil hub of Malakal, captured by rebels during the week even though a ceasefire was supposed to be in place, was marked by a horrific but now grimly familiar pattern of war crimes.
The sources, many of whom asked to not be identified for security reasons, say Malakal has been left littered with countless bodies -- now being eating by dogs and vultures.
On Thursday, two days after rebels loyal to ex-vice president Riek Machar fought their way into Malakal and ejected government troops, the international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) relayed the first account of what had occurred at Malakal`s Teaching Hospital.
"Many of the people in town were obliged to seek refuge in the overcrowded UNMISS compound due to the high insecurity in the area," said MSF, referring to the UN base where more than 20,000 civilians have taken shelter.
"Some of these displaced people reported to our teams cases of the killing and rape of patients and relatives in the only functional hospital in town."
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also said it was "shocked" by abuses in the town, citing reports of "deliberate killings and sexual violence" and "health-care facilities being destroyed and patients being attacked".
Another source, who asked not to be named, gave more details.
"There were several women stuck inside Malakal`s Teaching Hospital. It appears they were repeatedly raped and killed," said the source, adding that a "handful of women" were killed but unable to give an exact number.
"The bodies showed signs of extreme, unimaginable sexual violence," including bite marks and stab wounds, the source added.
The motive for much of the violence has been ethnic: members of South Sudan`s Dinka tribe, to which President Salva Kiir belongs, have been targeted by rebels, while government troops have been accused of massacres of ethnic Nuer, the tribe of rebel leader Machar.
Atrocities have been committed by both sides, whether in the initial clashes that marked the start of the conflict in the capital Juba on December 15, during repeated battles over town of Bor farther north, or in the northern oil hubs of Bentiu and Malakal.In another incident in Malakal, militiamen are believed to have gunned down people who were sheltering in the town`s main church.
Several independent sources said they had heard "credible witness testimony" that a group of men, women and children were dead, but added that restrictions on movement due to security reasons meant it had been so far impossible to confirm precisely how many died.
Speaking to AFP in Juba, UNMISS Spokesman Joe Contreras said UN staff "cannot really say" whether the dead littering the streets of Malakal were mainly civilians or soldiers "because they can`t really get out of their vehicles" due to the presence of apparently trigger-happy, young rebels.
Some rebels have been patrolling around the UNMISS base, taunting ethnic Dinka families who are sheltering inside, according to one aid worker.
UNMISS also said its staff in Malakal witnessed on Thursday the "extra-judicial execution of two children outside the perimeter... by armed youths believed to be allied with armed opposition forces."
Such is the intensity of ethnic hatred that even non-combatants have reportedly been joining in the killing, something that has stunned even seasoned observers of the world`s youngest nation.
Martin Plaut, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, who has been documenting the crisis, said he been told by a well-placed source how some members of the UN`s "locally recruited staff had to lock themselves into a bunker in a UN base to prevent other local UN staff from murdering them".
"These were people who had worked together for years and stuck together through thick and thin," Plaut said.South Sudan`s government has accused the rebels of being behind the atrocities, but -- in a first since the conflict began -- said on Monday that 20 officers in the government army were "being investigated for killing innocent civilians" in other incidents.
But a diplomatic source said President Kiir appeared unwilling to crack down too heavily, "because he`s been suffering from defections left, right and centre... and probably feels he can`t afford to alienate any of his senior officers".
As for the rebels, they maintain their fighters are beyond reproach -- although analysts believe they are unable to control their loose alliance of defectors and ethnic militia.
"All the civilians who lost their lives or got injured were harmed by government troops," the rebels` military spokesman, Lul Ruai Koang, said in a statement issued two days after the fall of Malakal.
"Our forces are well-disciplined, operate under clear rules of engagement... and this had been the trend and hallmark of their conduct in all active fronts since the conflict began," he said.
On Saturday UNMISS issued a preliminary report for the UN Security Council on the overall human rights situation in the country up to the end of January.
It said it has so far documented numerous witness accounts of "unlawful killings, including mass killings, enforced disappearances, gender-based violence, such as rapes and gang rapes, and instances of ill-treatment and torture by forces from both sides of the conflict".
A statement from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued on Thursday described the situation in Malakal as "catastrophic".