Uganda has confirmed its troops are fighting alongside South Sudan’s government against rebels, as fresh details emerged Thursday of brutal ethnic killings in the conflict ravaging the world’s youngest nation.
Ceasefire talks — to end a more than a month-long conflict in which thousands have been killed — are deadlocked amid squabbling leaders and rebel demands for the release of political prisoners.
The talks in neighbouring Ethiopia are mediated by the East African regional bloc IGAD, of which Uganda is a key member.
But Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said his troops were also supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) — the first official confirmation foreign forces are taking part in combat.
“The SPLA and elements of our army had a big battle with these rebel troops at a point about 90 kilometres (55 miles) from Juba, where we inflicted a big defeat on them,” Museveni said, speaking in at a summit meeting in Angola late Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, many lives were lost on the side of the rebels. We also took casualties and also had some dead.”
Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed so far in the fighting.
Ugandan troops deployed in South Sudan five days after fighting began on December 15 to support President Salva Kiir, but had so far been vague over the nature of its operations.
The fighting pits forces loyal to Kiir against a loose coalition of army defectors and ethnic militia nominally headed by Riek Machar, a former vice president and seasoned guerrilla fighter.
According to the United Nations, some 400,000 civilians have fled their homes over the past month as the violence spiralled into ethnic killings between members of Kiir’s Dinka people — the country’s largest group — and the Nuer community of Machar.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday released a report detailing atrocities and warning that “appalling crimes have been committed against civilians for no other reason than their ethnicity.”
HRW’s documented reports of “widespread killings”, including a massacre in Juba of between 200 and 300 men, when security forces began “systematically shooting” into a locked room.
Others detailed targeted killings including the shooting of children.
“They brought out five of my neighbours and shot them in the street,” a 42-year-old bricklayer in Juba told HRW, recounting killings at the start of the conflict.
“We ran, the soldiers said ‘stop’, we refused and they shot at us. I stopped to pick my son but he was heavy and dead. When they reached him they shot him again.”
UN leader Ban Ki-moon has expressed alarm at the “rising number of fatalities” in the fighting, as well as condemning both the army and rebels for stealing food and humanitarian supplies.
The UN World Food Programme has said that at least 10 percent of its food in the stores have been looted, enough to feed some 180,000 people for a month.
More than four million people, or roughly a third of the population of the country that won independence from Sudan only in 2011, were deemed to be “food insecure” by WFP even before fighting began.
South Sudan’s army could not be reached Thursday for updates on fighting, but state television on Wednesday read an army statement calling on civilians in the rebel-held town of Bor to leave immediatly.
The army has for days talked of an imminent assault on Bor, the capital of restive Jonglei state, which has already swapped hands three times since fighting began.
On Monday, rebels staged an assault to seize back Malakal — the main town in oil-producing Upper Nile state — where tank battles were reported on the streets on Monday. Both the government and rebels have said they are in control of the town.
Civil society leaders warned Thursday that foreign armies in South Sudan will worsen the conflict.
Foreign military intervention “will only contribute to the suffering of our people,” a statement from the Citizens for Peace and Justice read, a coalition including academics and religious leaders.
“What started as a political dispute… has now become a crisis engulfing the whole country,” the statement added, warning “there is no military solution” to the conflict.