Sudan activists on Thursday called for the United States and the international community to intervene in a region of Sudan inaccessible to outsiders after a U.S. group released satellite photos of what they said appear to be mass graves.
The Satellite Sentinel Project images show what appear to be freshly dug sites in South Kordofan state, where Sudan's Arab military has been targeting a black ethnic minority loyal to the military of the newly independent Republic of South Sudan. A witness told the project that he saw 100 bodies or more put into one of the pits.
"The DigitalGlobe satellite images contain many of the details and hallmarks of the mass atrocities described by at least five eyewitnesses to the alleged killings," said Nathaniel A. Raymond, of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which analyzes the project's images.
Fighting broke out in the region on June 5. Neither the U.N., outside aid groups nor journalists have access to the region, raising fears that more violence is being carried out than is known publicly.
Samuel Totten, a genocide scholar at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said that it is "imperative" that a team of investigators from The Hague-based International Criminal Court travel to the graves quickly to ascertain who the dead are in the graves, how many people were killed and in what manner.
"It is imperative member nations of the United Nations act now in a timely, efficient and effective manner to enter South Kordofan in order to ward off any more mass killings," Totten said. He urged the establishment of a no-fly zone.
A spokesman for Sudan's ruling party denied the project's allegations and said the area is accessible to observers, though aid groups say it is not.
"Even if there is any suspicion on such pictures, people can go there and visit the area and see what is the actual reality," said Rabie A. Atti, National Congress Party spokesman. "I think this is only rumors trying to, you know, blacken the people of our government."
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who has written a book on the atrocities in western Sudan's Darfur region and is following the violence in Kordofan, said reports have been coming out of the Nuba Mountains for weeks of targeted killings.
"The evidence demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that there are mass graves in Kadugli," Reeves said Thursday. "In short, these accounts strongly suggest a carefully orchestrated campaign of ethnically targeted destruction, and a follow-up effort to hide the evidence from international witnesses."
The satellite group said three excavated areas measuring about 26 meters (yards) by 5 meters (yards) are visible near a school in the town of Kadugli. The group said that an eyewitness reported seeing 100 bodies or more put into one of the pits on June 8.
After the violence broke out, the U.N. said at least 73,000 people fled the region. Many of the displaced are ethnic Nuba who have long been marginalized. They are mostly seeking shelter in nearby communities or hiding out in the Nuba Mountains where they have no access to medical assistance, food and clean water.
A church leader in Kadugli, Bishop Andudu Adam Elnail, said it was devastating to know that members of his community have been killed and "are lying now in mass graves." He urged the international community to send a peacekeeping force to monitor the situation and for aid groups to be allowed to return with food and medicine.
John Prendergast, a co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project, along with actor George Clooney, said diplomacy on the issue with no tangible international pressure "is a recipe for ongoing death and destruction."
"This evidence demonstrates the urgent need for a full-scale international investigation into the violence in South Kordofan, and underlines the imperative to protect civilian populations from their own government in Khartoum," said Prendergast.
A U.N. report obtained by The Associated Press last month said that Sudanese intelligence agents posed as Red Crescent workers and ordered refugees to leave a U.N.-protected camp in South Kordofan. The U.N. report contained no information about what happened to those people afterward.
The satellite project said it was told by an eyewitness that Sudanese Armed Forces troops, militia fighters, men in brown uniforms like those worn by prisoners and individuals dressed in a manner consistent with Sudan Red Crescent Society workers were seen driving large green trucks close to the alleged mass grave site.
Because the authorities in South Kordofan are barring international aid agencies from entering the region, and journalists are not able to safely access it, activists fear the Khartoum government is carrying out targeted killings like those in Darfur over the last decade.
"Men at the site were reportedly unloading dead bodies from the trucks and depositing them in the open pits. The individual claims to have seen some bodies in what appeared to be bags," said the report.
The project did not identify any witnesses or its means of communicating with them for fear of reprisal attacks.
Reeves said that his contacts in Kadugli have reported security roadblocks, house-to-house searches for supporters of the South Sudan military, and executions on the street.
"What's happening beyond Kadugli, beyond the Nuba Mountains, in places we haven't heard of, is that these Nuba people are being exterminated," he said.
The Nuba people have been targeted by Khartoum before. Reeves said that during killings in the 1990s, information from the region was sealed tight, and that no one knew the killings were taking place for two or three yeas.
"It was a black box genocide, as Darfur is becoming a black box genocide, and as I will predict will happen in Kordofan in the next couple months," Reeves said.
Associated Press writer Maggie Fick in Juba, South Sudan contributed to this report.