The UN has reported that dozens of corpses have been found in mass graves in South Sudan. Those killed are believed to have been victims of ethnic violence, which has left the country on the brink of civil war.
The United Nations said on Tuesday that rights officers had visited a mass grave in the town of Bentiu in Unity State, where around 75 bodies were located.
A UN spokesperson in Geneva told news agencies that the victims were believed to have been members of the Dinka ethnic group, who were part of the Sudan people's Liberation Army.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, used a statement to call on the leaders of both sides of South Sudan's ethnic divide to renounce violence, as civilians were now being caught in the cross-fire.
"There is a palpable fear among civilians of both Dinka and Nuer backgrounds that they will be killed on the basis of their ethnicity," the statement said, also referring to the other major ethnic group at the heart of the current violence.
Pillay said that two other mass graves had been reported in the capital, Juba, but that UN officers had not yet managed to visit those sites.
The UN also reported on Tuesday that 81,000 had people have been displaced since the fighting started, including some 45,000 seeking protection at UN compounds.
Security Council vote
The reports of the apparent ethnic massacres came just hours before the UN Security Council was to vote on a resolution to authorize the deployment of an additional 5,500 peacekeepers and 400 police officers to the country. The troops would bolster the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which currently has around 7,000 military and civilian personnel.
On Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the 15 members of the Security Council to back the resolution to "ensure the protection of civilians and the protection of United Nations personnel and assets."
He also described the situation in South Sudan as being of "mounting urgency."
It was not immediately clear where the additional soldiers and police officers would come from.
Tensions have escalated in South Sudan - Africa's youngest country - since December 15, when South Sudan's former vice president, Riek Machar, was alleged to have attempted a coup. Machar has denied responsibility, but has still called on current President Salva Kiir resign. The duo are long-time adversaries, with Kiir having ousted Machar as vice president back in July. The two are also split along ethnic lines, with Kiir belongs to Dinka group, while Machar is a Nuer.
Both have expressed a willingness to hold talks to try to end the violence, but so far no meeting has been scheduled.
On Monday, Kiir announced that his forces were set to launch a major offensive to take back two key towns from the rebels.
pfd/ph (dpa, Reuters, AP)