Rival forces in South Sudan's civil war should face sanctions and an arms embargo, Human Rights Watch said on Friday, reporting “extraordinary acts of cruelty” it said amounted to war crimes.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.5 million have fled almost eight months of carnage in the world's youngest nation, where aid workers warn of famine within weeks if fighting continues.
“The scale and gravity of the abuses warrant a comprehensive arms embargo on South Sudan, as well as targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for serious violations of international law,” HRW said.
The United States and the European Union have already slapped penalties on three senior army commanders from the government and opposition, while the regional IGAD bloc have suggested they could follow suit if progress was not made.
US Secretary of State John Kerry warned on Tuesday the international community was moving towards a “final ultimatum” to warring parties, after meeting South Sudanese President Salva Kiir in Washington.
United Nations Security Council members are due to visit the war-ravaged nation next week.
Fighting broke out in December, sparked by a power struggle between Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar, with battles between government troops, mutinous soldiers and ragtag militia forces divided by tribe.
In July, South Sudan said it had taken delivery of $14 million worth of arms including anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers and assault rifles, bought from China before fighting began.
China has also sent troops for the UN peacekeeping mission in the country.
But while diplomats report growing frustration at the collapse of ceasefire deals, they suggest sanctions on the two leaders would be made only if talks with Security Council envoys in Juba stall.
This week at least six aid workers were killed in South Sudan's Upper Nile state, with the UN evacuating over 200 workers who supported 125 000 refugees from neighbouring Sudan.
Civilians have been massacred, patients murdered in hospitals and people killed sheltering in churches.
“South Sudan's death toll in this new war is unknown but thousands of civilians have been killed, homes and markets burned, and bodies left to be eaten by birds and dogs,” the HRW report read, based on over 400 interviews.
“Widespread killings of civilians, often based on their ethnicity, and mass destruction and looting of civilian property, have defined the conflict.”
While peace talks officially resumed this week in Ethiopia, the two sides have barely met, and previous ceasefire deals have all swiftly collapsed.
“The crimes against civilians in South Sudan over the past months, including ethnic killings, will resonate for decades,” HRW Africa chief Daniel Bekele said. - Sapa-AFP