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UN spokesperson Joseph Contreras told the media that members of the Nuer tribe, which largely runs the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, overran Bentiu last week and then proceeded to a mosque and hospital, where they robbed and killed people seeking sanctuary.
The Nuer fighters are allied with former Vice-President Riek Machar, who was accused by President Salva Kiir – a member of the Dinka tribe – of orchestrating a coup.
On December 15, 2013, it was reported that members of the Presidential Guard loyal to Machar engaged in a gun battle with security forces supporting Kiir.
Hostilities erupted when other supporters of the two men, from rival tribes, clashed in the capital Juba, which has since been stabilised by the South Sudan Army loyal to Kiir.
By February, fighting had spread to over 30 towns throughout South Sudan.
Reports emerged that Nuer commanders told their troops to rape non-Nuer women (likely Dinka) during the Bentiu killings and that a radio station was used to encourage fighters to target people based on their ethnicity.
“It’s the first time we’re aware of that a local radio station was broadcasting hate messages encouraging people to engage in atrocities,” said the top UN representative in South Sudan Toby Lanzer after visiting Bentiu on Monday.
“And that really accelerates South Sudan’s descent into an even more difficult situation from which it needs to extract itself,” Lanzer told the Associated Press.
He added that the ethnic killings are “game-changers” in the four-month South Sudan civil war.
UN officials said there were still dozens of bodies that needed to be removed from the streets and given burial.
Lanzer said that the UN is currently investigating the killings and will announce a final death tally later this week.
A day after the attacks in Bentiu, armed militia believed to be members of the Dinka attacked and killed refugees at a UN camp in Bor, the capital of Jonglei.