HORRIFIC images from the scene of last week’s massacre in South Sudan were viewed by members of the United Nations Security Council yesterday as they discussed imposing sanctions to prevent more atrocities.
South Sudan’s Dinka president Salva Kiir earlier sacked the head of his army, General James Hoth Mai – a member of the Nuer tribe – following recent rebel advances.
His country has been in turmoil since December and last week rebels, mainly belonging to the Nuer and loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar, seized the oil hub of Bentiu .
The UN accused Mr Kiir’s government of providing “erroneous information” about the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the town. The head of UN aid in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said “piles and piles” of bodies were left behind.
Security Council members watched video showing bodies lining a street and the inside of a mosque where civilians had sought shelter from rebels taking control from Mr Kiir’s troops in the world’s newest country.
“Horrific pictures of corpses,” France’s ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, tweeted from the meeting. “No place safe for refugees.”
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said the “cycle of violence must stop immediately” and warned that a “humanitarian catastrophe will become even more a certainty” if it doesn’t.
Because of the months of fighting, more than one million people have fled their homes. With few residents tending crops, UN officials warned famine now loomed.
Yesterday Mr Araud said: “I think we are ready to go down the road of sanctions.”
US president Barack Obama has warned that America may levy sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, on individuals and entities involved in stoking violence in South Sudan.
The massacre has left diplomats and the UN mission in South Sudan questioning what to do next. “We have also to face the fact that maybe we can’t co-operate with this government any more,” Mr Araud said. “Because atrocities are committed by both sides. So I do think we have to have some soul-searching about what the UN should do.”
Mr Ladsous told the council that neither the government nor the rebel forces is sincere in participating in peace talks, but the talks had to be supported as “the only game in town”, according to a UN diplomat.
Human Rights Watch has called on the Security Council to investigate the killings in Bentiu and said the violence shows that ethnically motivated brutality against civilians is spiralling out of control in the landlocked country, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011.
As tensions have risen, the UN mission has faced attack, even as tens of thousands of civilians continue to take shelter inside its bases across the country.
In a statement, the mission said South Sudan minister of information Michael Lueth was incorrect when he said residents seeking protection were barred from entering the UN camp near the Bentiu massacre scene.
The mission said the numbers of people sheltering inside the base rose from 8,000 on 15 April, when the killings started, to about 22,500 by last night.
The UN also said Mr Lueth was wrong to suggest that refugees were rebel fighters or sympathisers, and these remarks could encourage attacks on refugees inside UN camps.