South Sudan mass graves reported as ethnic killings spread

The BBC's James Copnall explains the fighting gripping the world's newest state, South Sudan - in 60 seconds

The UN says it has reports of three mass graves in South Sudan, amid "palpable fear" among civilians they will be killed for their ethnicity.

There has been a week of fighting amid a power struggle between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and ex-deputy Riek Machar, of the Nuer.

The UN said 34 bodies had been found in Bentiu in the north, with two more sites reported in the capital, Juba.

One man in Juba said he was rounded up with 250 men and only 12 survived.

The fighting first erupted in the capital last week and has spread throughout South Sudan.

Analysis

The growing number of allegations of ethnically motivated killings are deeply concerning. It's important to remember that this crisis is at its heart a political struggle, in a militarised, and, yes, ethnically divided society.

The strength of politicians often comes from their ethnic base, so the power struggle is exacerbating ethnic cleavages.

It is wrong to paint this as an "ethnic war", though - it is far more complicated than this. It is also unclear to what extent the military commanders can control the many armed civilians fighting in different parts of the country.

With all that said, international concern about ethnically driven violence is high. Ban Ki-moon has warned that anyone responsible for human rights violations will be held to account.

It is to be hoped that these are not empty words.

UN officials say at least 80,000 people have been displaced by the crisis - about half of them seeking shelter at UN bases - with fighting now having spread to half of the 10 states.

'Palpable fear'

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has urged both sides to do all they can to protect civilians.

She said in a statement: "Mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days."

UNHCR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said a UN official had seen 14 bodies in the grave in Bentiu and another 20 at a riverside nearby.

But she said 75 Sudan People's Liberation Army soldiers, all Dinka, were unaccounted for there and were feared dead.

Ms Shamdasani said: "As for the other two reported graves in Juba, we are still working to verify but it is very difficult, and there are reports that some bodies may have already been burned."

The two sites are at Jebel-Kujur and Newside, near Eden.

Ms Pillay added: "There is a palpable fear among civilians of both Dinka and Nuer backgrounds that they will be killed on the basis of their ethnicity."

BBC Africa analyst James Copnall says the fighting in South Sudan is not an exclusively ethnic conflict - it is a military combat propelled by political ambitions.

But he says South Sudan does have deep ethnic divisions and they are being exacerbated by the fighting.

Salva Kiir, 23 Dec, Juba Salva Kiir has agreed to talks "without preconditions"
Riek Machar, July 2013 Riek Machar says he has formed a delegation for talks in Ethiopia

President Kiir and Mr Machar have both said they are willing to talk to try to end the conflict.

However, Mr Machar has said his detained political allies must first be freed, while Mr Kiir says there should be no preconditions.

Mr Machar told Radio France Internationale he had spoken to US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday. Mr Machar said he had formed a delegation for talks and that they would probably be held in Ethiopia.

He said: "We want a democratic nation. We want democratic free and fair elections. We want Salva Kiir to call it a day."

'Rounded up'

Rebels supporting Mr Machar have seized the major towns of Bor and Bentiu, the capital of the oil-producing Unity State.

Ban: "The world is watching all sides in South Sudan"

Troops loyal to Mr Kiir are advancing on Bor. Army spokesman Col Philip Aguer said: "We expect that we [will] retake Bor within 72 hours."

Mr Kiir has accused Mr Machar, who he sacked in July, of plotting a coup. Mr Machar denies he is trying to seize power.

Hannah McNeish, a journalist in Juba, told the BBC she had interviewed a man called Simon, living at a UN camp, who said he had been shot four times but managed to survive a mass killing by hiding under dead bodies.

"He tells of being rounded up with about 250 other men, driven to a police station in one of Juba's busiest suburbs. He describes an ordeal whereby over the course of two days, forces outside the windows fired into this room, killing all but 12 men," she said.

The official death toll in the week of fighting stands at 500, but aid agencies say the true figure is likely to be much higher.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an increase in the UN's peacekeepers from 6,800 to about 11,800. A Security Council vote on the resolution is expected later on Tuesday.

Sudan suffered a 22-year civil war that left more than a million people dead before the South became independent in 2011.

Map of South Sudan highlight five of the central states affected by violence Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a power struggle between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his Nuer ex-deputy Riek Machar. The fear is that the rivalry will spark a widespread ethnic conflict. According to OCHA, 81,000 people have been forced from their homes.
News graphic showing the ethnic groups of South Sudan Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Map showing the location of oil fields in South Sudan Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north
Map showing the geography of South Sudan The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Map showing access to water in South Sudan After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Map showing education levels in South Sudan Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Map showing food insecurity rates in South Sudan Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight - this compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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