By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A government militia in Sudan's conflict-torn Darfur region has been guilty of killings and mass rapes of civilians over the past year and a half, Human Rights Watch said in a new report published on Wednesday.
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when mainly non-Arab tribes took up arms against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination. The mass killings of a decade ago have eased, but the insurgency continues and Khartoum has sharply escalated attacks on rebel groups over the past year.
HRW pointed the finger at Arab fighters from a government militia that Western officials and activists say is a new form of the feared "Janjaweed" brigades called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
"The RSF has killed, raped and tortured civilians in scores of villages in an organized, deliberate, and systematic way," said Daniel Bekele, HRW's Africa director. He said the government should disband the RSF and prosecute guilty commanders and officials.
The findings were based on interviews with 212 victims and witnesses.
A United Nations-African Union joint peacekeeping mission known as UNAMID has long faced accusations of failing to do enough to protect civilians against a government that has been accused of having a policy of genocide in Darfur, a remote and barren region of Western Sudan.
It has also been accused of withholding information on the scale of violence against civilians and peacekeepers by the Sudanese army and allied militias.
Bekele said both the U.N. and AU have been "sitting on their hands" while the RSF has been on a rampage. He called on UNAMID to do more to protect civilians.
A U.N. peacekeeping official said the HRW report documented the "devastating effect" of the government's campaign against rebels. He said UNAMID continues to protect displaced people though it continues to face access restrictions across the Darfur.
HRW cited the example of January 2015 attacks on the town of Golo, in Jebel Marra, Darfur. Some 21 people from Golo and nearby villages interviewed said they witnessed killings, rapes, beatings and looting. HRW said scores of women at Golo's hospital were raped.
HRW said many women were gang raped infront of neighbors who were forced to watch. It said some who resisted were killed.
Late last year Khartoum ordered UNAMID out of the country after it began investigating an alleged mass rape by Sudanese soldiers in Darfur. The government denies any wrongdoing by either its army or the RSF.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Andrew Hay)