UN Security Council approves plans to almost double the number of peacekeepers in South Sudan as reports of mass graves fuel fears of a worsening of ethnic blood shed.
The move came as the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in the country said the death toll from the past 10 days of violence was likely now in the thousands, rather than the hundreds the world body had previously estimated.
“I think it’s undeniable at this stage that there must have been thousands of people who have lost their lives,” Toby Lanzer told the BBC’s Newshour programme.
“When I’ve looked at the hospitals in key towns and I’ve looked at the hospitals in the capital itself, the range of injuries, this is no longer a situation where we can merely say it’s hundreds of people who’ve lost their lives,” he said.
Mr Lanzer was speaking from a UN compound in the rebel-held city of Bentiu, capital of Unity state.
With some 45,000 civilians seeking protection at UN bases, the 15-member Security Council unanimously authorized a plan by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to boost the strength of the peacekeeping force in South Sudan to 12,500 troops and 1,323 police.
The additional personnel will reinforce UN bases where civilians are seeking shelter. However Ban warned that “even with additional capabilities, we will not be able to protect every civilian in need in South Sudan.”
Violence erupted in the capital Juba on 15 December and quickly spread, dividing the land-locked country of 10.8 million along ethnic lines of Nuer and Dinka.
South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 under a peace agreement to end decades of war.
Western powers and east African states, keen to prevent more chaos in a fragile region, have tried to mediate between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and rebel leader Riek Machar, a Nuer, who was vice president until Kiir sacked him in July.
“Whatever the differences, nothing can justify the violence that has engulfed their young nation,” Mr Ban told the council after the vote.
“There is no military solution to this conflict. This is a political crisis which requires a peaceful, political solution.”
Most fighting has involved Dinka and Nuer factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, with militias and marauding youths also reported to be attacking rival ethnic groups. Kiir and Machar both have said the conflict is political, not tribal.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said a mass grave believed to contain the bodies of 75 ethnic Dinka soldiers had been discovered in Bentiu.
However, the UN mission in South Sudan, known as UNMISS, said in a statement later on Tuesday that it could not confirm a grave of such a size at Bentiu. It said reports now suggested that “this is an inflation of a skirmish resulting in about 15 fatalities, with details to be confirmed.”
In her statement, Pillay said there were also “reportedly at least two other mass graves in Juba.” UNMISS said it was investigating reports of atrocities.
Ms Pillay urged both sides to protect civilians, and said political and military leaders could be held to account for crimes. “Mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days,” she said.
The Juba government said it was not responsible for a mass grave in Bentiu, and messaged on Twitter: “Bentiu is currently under the control of the rebel leader Riek Machar – we have nothing to do with that area & the mass killings #SouthSudan.”
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the crisis had displaced an estimated 81,000 people, though the real number was likely to be higher. Tens of thousands have taken refuge with the UN