Bentiu — Hundreds of people are unaccounted for and feared dead after rebel forces overran Bentiu town in Unity State of South Sudan on Tuesday, with multiple sources describing incidents of forced disappearances and mass killings of civilians.
Fighting between the South Sudanese army and the Sudan People's Liberation Army in Opposition broke out Monday near Bentiu. By Tuesday morning the rebel group captured the town, which is the capital of Unity State.
A trader from Darfur, Adam Al Nibeiga, said he lost four brothers and two other relatives in a massacre at a home in Bentiu on Tuesday.
In an interview with Radio Tamazuj today, he named his lost brothers as Ali Al Sadig Al Nibeiga, Issam Al Sadig Al Nibeiga, Al Saud Al Sadig Al Nibeiga and Abdullah Al Sadig Al Nibeiga, and the two relatives as Musa Abdullah Aslah and Abdullah Adam Saleh.
When the rebels took over Bentiu, he said, the brothers were together with 44 other traders in a home belonging to Adam Juma Jodallah, a prominent merchant in Bentiu.
The total number of 48 people in the house were taken outside, lined up, and then gunned down with a machine gun. Forty-five (45) were killed and three wounded, he said.
Al Nibeiga further said more than 180 traders were killed at the mosque: "Inside the mosque the total killed was more than 180 - at the big mosque in Bentiu in Khali Balag market."
Another trader from Darfur explained that many Bentiu residents started to leave the city on Monday in anticipation of the rebel attack, and traders closed the market early, at about 4:00 or 5:00 p.m.
He said about 250 went to the mosque to take shelter there together, while others went to their homes. Some also tried to leave the town, he said.
One group that crossed the bridge to Rubkona was turned back by South Sudanese authorities, who refused them permission to leave, saying the city was still secure. In spite of this, some traders reportedly succeeded to leave the town.
The trader further said that he reached UNMISS compound in Bentiu together with about 20 other people. Fighting reached into the town at around 4:00 a.m. the next morning, Tuesday, after which more people came to the base.
The trader, who declined to be named, repeated the same claim that all of the people in the mosque were killed. He said others were killed at the hospital.
Yet another source in Unity State said that the attack on the mosque resulted in the killing of 250 and wounding of more than 40 Sudanese. He said that soldiers loyal to Riek Machar then forced ten Sudanese to collect the corpses from the mosque and take them to the bush to be buried.
Government, rebel claims
Officials of the South Sudanese government were forced from Bentiu by the rebel assault. State Security Advisor John Malok, speaking to Radio Tamazuj on Wednesday from an undisclosed location in the state, claimed that the rebels killed hundreds of people when they took the city.
"The forces of the rebel Riek Machar killed yesterday the Arab and Darfur traders staying with us. They killed all of them. And they killed citizens and government employees and foreigners. That is what happened in the state," he said.
He put the number of those killed on Tuesday and Wednesday at 371, insisting that the victims were civilians. He claimed there were killings at the mosque, churches and hospital.
On the other side, a rebel official in Bentiu told Radio Tamazuj they were not responsible. Asked about the killing of the traders, the spokesman of the defected SPLA Division 4 said they killed only people wearing uniforms, denying killing civilians.
He said they killed only 'tora bora,' a Sudanese term for rebels or mercenary forces, suggesting by implication that the Machar forces meant to target JEM, the Justice and Equality Movement, which recruits most of its troops from Darfur and Kordofan, and perhaps also SPLM-N, whose troops are mostly Nuba.
Malok, however, argued that JEM was nowhere present in Bentiu when the attack took place. "Those people were not Justice and Equality Movement. Those people were just traders, they had no connection with Justice and Equality Movement. Those were traders working in the market," he said.
One of the traders explained that the Machar forces suspected the Sudanese of involvement in the northern armed groups - JEM and SPLM-N - which they blame for backing Salva Kiir. This is why they are targeting Sudanese he said, while adding that Ugandans and Kenyans were also killed whereas Ethiopians were spared.
A group of Sudanese traders escaped from Bentiu including many who were wounded. They eventually reached to Abiemnhom, at town remaining under government control northwest of Bentiu near the Sudanese border.
One of the traders in Abiemnhom, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, told Radio Tamazuj that prior to the attack there were 1373 foreign traders in Bentiu of different nationalities, including Sudanese, Kenyans, Eritreans, Ethiopians and Ugandans.
He explained that hundreds are unaccounted for, citing also the same reports of a massacre at the mosque in the town. "Those people (the rebels) entered the mosque, they surrounded the mosque. The missing now are 370 - they killed from them 200," he said.
Another trader in Abiemnhom said that he was shot in Rubkona. He was awakened by the sound of shooting in the early morning on Tuesday, and later was shot while running away.
The traders in Abiemnhom said that among them are 47 people who were shot during the clashes, all of them in Abiemnhom hospital. Another group of 25 were reportedly hurt during a lorry accident and taken to Aneit hospital in the neighbouring Abyei region.
UNMISS 'gravely concerned'
Statements by the UN peacekeeping mission and agencies suggest that over the last few days they tried to evacuate some civilians from various points in the city to their base, where they are now protecting more than 12,000 people.
According to a statement today, UNMISS also sent out a patrol on Tuesday morning where they saw thousands of people gathered in the vicinity of Bentiu Hospital and the UN World Food Programme compound.
"Some of these civilians later entered the UNMISS compound after nightfall on Tuesday evening," the statement read.
"On Wednesday, UNMISS peacekeepers facilitated the movement of the displaced persons to the UNMISS protection-of-civilians site. On Tuesday the UNMISS team also saw between 35 and 40 dead bodies along the roadside, with the majority of the corpses dressed in military uniforms," added UNMISS.
Meanwhile, the Protection Cluster, a group of agencies and aid organizations coordinated in part by the UNHCR, stated on Wednesday that it was "deeply concerned about reports from several sources that parties to the current conflict in Bentiu Town are both affirmatively preventing civilians from seeking refuge in the UNMISS Bentiu Base and forcibly removing individual civilians from the Ministry of Health Hospital in Bentiu by parties to the conflict."
"If these reports are true, such actions can constitute grave violations of human rights and/or humanitarian law. Individual combatants and those with command responsibility could be held accountable for such violations," added the statement by the Protection Cluster.
They further said that they wanted to know what had happened to those civilians forcibly removed from hospitals and other locations.