The United Nations said Tuesday that some 173 civilians have been killed and 37 abducted in four months of fighting in South Sudan between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, with many cases of sexual violence also reported.
The fighting took place between February and May in Koch, Leer and Mayendit counties, located about 400 kilometres north of the capital Juba in Unity State, a stronghold of the pro-Machar SPLA-IO forces.
"Hostilities in southern Unity State have affected at least 28 villages (...) with an estimated 173 civilians killed, 12 injured and 37 women and children abducted," according to a report by the UN Mission in South Sudan (Unmiss).
Some of the abductees suffered "sexual violence, including girls as young as eight years old", the UN said. A nine-year-old girl died after being gang raped, according to Unmiss, which says it has documented 131 cases of rape and gang rape.
The violence has also caused an estimated 44,000 people to flee their villages.
While factions on both sides are involved in the violence, government forces and militias loyal to President Salva Kiir are the "main perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses," according to the UN, citing "premeditated" attacks.
"Human rights violations have been committed with impunity," said Nicholas Haysom, the UN secretary-general's special envoy to the country. According to international law, the authorities must "protect civilians, investigate suspected human rights violations", he said.
Since its independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has been plagued by politico-ethnic violence and chronic instability, which has prevented it from recovering from the bloody civil war that left nearly 400,000 dead and millions displaced between 2013 and 2018.
A peace agreement signed in 2018 provides for power-sharing in a government of national unity, formed in February 2020 with Kiir as president and Machar as vice president. But it has remained largely unimplemented, leaving the country in chaos.
The UN and the international community regularly accuse South Sudanese leaders of maintaining a status quo, fomenting violence, suppressing political freedoms, and misappropriating public funds.
In mid-July, the United States withdrew from two peace process monitoring bodies because of the "lack of progress" in the transition process and the "lack of political will" of its leaders to bring peace to the country.