Juba - War crimes have been committed by all sides in conflict-wracked South Sudan, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday, reporting widespread atrocities in weeks of carnage in the world's youngest nation.
Thousands have been killed and almost 900 000 forced from their homes by over two months of battles between rebel and government forces, backed by troops from neighbouring Uganda.
“Armed forces from both sides have extensively looted and destroyed civilian property, including desperately needed aid facilities, targeted civilians, and carried out extrajudicial executions, often based on ethnicity,” HRW said in a report.
Peace talks in Ethiopia are stalled and a month-old ceasefire deal is in tatters amid ongoing fighting.
“The wanton destruction and violence against civilians in this conflict is shocking,” HRW Africa director Daniel Bekele said.
“Both sides need to stop their forces from committing abuses and hold those who have responsible for their actions,” he added, calling on the African Union to “accelerate its long promised investigations.”
Atrocities have been committed by both sides, whether in the initial clashes that marked the start of the conflict in the capital Juba on December 15, or during repeated battles for strategic towns across the impoverished but oil-rich nation.
Tens of thousands are still crammed into UN bases in fear of revenge attacks by either President Salva Kiir's Dinka people or the Nuer tribe of his former vice-president turned arch-rival Riek Machar.
“In any armed conflict, murder, attacks directed at civilians, civilian property - including objects used for humanitarian relief - and pillage are prohibited and constitute war crimes,” the report read.
“A clear pattern of reprisal killings based on ethnicity, massive destruction, and widespread looting has emerged in this conflict,” it added.
Some key towns have swapped hands several times, as rebels and government troops battle for control.
In Bentiu, one of the hardest hit towns and the capital of oil-producing Unity state, rebels ransacked markets and aid agencies while they were in control.
But when government forces - fighting alongside allied rebel fighters from Sudan's Darfur region, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) - took back they town, they looted what remained, before turning their guns on civilians, HRW said.
“Although most civilians fled their homes ahead of the arrival of the government forces, government soldiers shot and killed civilians who remained,” HRW added, quoting residents.