South Sudanese troops committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity by killing and raping civilians during an offensive in rebel-held parts of the country's Unity state, an international human rights group said Wednesday.
The South Sudanese army and their allies in the Bul Nuer ethnic group forcibly displaced tens of thousands of people in Unity by attacking women, children and elderly people, while burning villages and stealing cattle, Human Rights Watch said in a report.
The group said that many of the attacks were against villages with no presence of rebel fighters, and that according to witnesses, civilians were "crushed by tanks."
The study specifically documents the killings of 60 people, including some by hanging or burning, and 63 rapes through interviews with 170 survivors — just a fraction of those killed in the April-June offensive.
In one case, a survivor said soldiers made her watch while they gang-raped her daughter before they burned the girl alive.
The rights group called for a probe of Sudan People's Liberation Army commanders in Unity state.
South Sudan's government has said any alleged abuses were limited to "a few individuals" who will face justice in national courts. But Skye Wheeler, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press that the attacks were "far more widespread and systematic to be blamed on a few rotten apples."
A U.N. report released in June said there were serious human rights violations by government troops in Unity state.
"The scope and level of cruelty that has characterized the reports suggests a depth of antipathy that exceeds political differences," U.N. report said.
South Sudan's civil war has inflamed the country's ethnic tensions. The followers of President Salva Kiir, mostly from the Dinka ethnic group, are pitted against the Nuer of former vice president Riek Machar in fight that started in December 2013.
In Unity state, however, the fighting is mostly between the Bul Nuer, who have remained loyal to Kiir, and other Nuer clans aligned with Machar.