JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Investigators discovered atrocities by all sides in South Sudan's civil war, including testimony of forced cannibalism and the discovery of mass graves, according to a long-awaited report by the African Union.
The report, released late Tuesday, also accused the forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, of recruiting an irregular tribal force before the outbreak of civil war in December 2013.
It also disputes a claim by the government that there was a coup attempt at that time by former Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer.
The report alleged that government troops carried out organized killings of ethnic Nuer in Juba, the capital. When the violence began, Machar became a rebel leader.
Tens of thousands of people have died and over 2 million more are displaced by warfare in South Sudan, according to the United Nations, which blamed the violence and the subsequent threat of famine on the young country's feuding leaders.
The African Union investigators, led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, found that the conflict began Dec. 15, 2013, when a skirmish broke out between Dinka and Nuer soldiers in the presidential guard following political tension between Kiir and Machar, his onetime deputy who had been fired the previous July.
Hundreds of Nuer men were rounded up and shot, and their mass graves were discovered, according to the report. Perpetrators — described as government forces or their allies — allegedly tortured their victims, sometimes forcing them to jump into bonfires or eat human flesh, witnesses told investigators.
The killings were "an organized military operation that could not have been successful without concerted efforts from various actors in the military and government circles," the report said. "Roadblocks or checkpoints were established all around Juba and house-to-house searches were undertaken by security forces. During this operation male Nuers were targeted, identified, killed on the spot or gathered in one place and killed."
The investigators found "evidence that some of the people who had been gathered were compelled to eat human flesh, while others were forced to drink human blood belonging to a victim who had been slaughtered and his blood collected on a plate," it said.
One witness said "she saw SPLA (South Sudan army) soldiers burning dead bodies and compelling Nuer women to eat burnt flesh of burnt victims," the report added.
In addition to testimony about forced cannibalism, the report said witnesses described how government troops took part in killings, abductions, disappearances, rapes, beatings and stealing.
The report said that Minister of Defense Kuol Manyang Juuk described a shadowy group called "Rescue the President" that killed people in Juba on Dec. 15-18 and "was even more powerful than organized forces."
The group was made up of Dinka soldiers who had been mobilized following a 2012 border crisis with northern neighbor Sudan. Some of these soldiers were moved south to Kiir's private farm near Juba in 2013 and later participated in the killings, the report said, citing interviews with informants.
Amid the Juba killings, Machar fled the capital and mobilized an insurgency which committed revenge attacks against the Dinka, sparking a cycle of violence in the towns of Bor, Malakal, and Bentiu, which also included rapes and killings in churches and hospitals, according to the report. Those revenge attacks occurred so quickly they probably were were also coordinated, it added.
Kiir and Machar signed a peace agreement in August but fighting continues.