The UN Security Council has unanimously voted to nearly double the number of peacekeepers in South Sudan to protect civilians, as thousands are feared dead in the deteriorating conflict in the world’s youngest state.
The top UN body voted Tuesday to authorize a request by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to boost the strength of the UN’s mission in South Sudan to 12,500 troops and 1,323 police – up from its previous mandate of 7,000 troops and 900 police.
The request from Ban Ki-moon came after the discovery of mass graves, as the country slides into a bloody ethnic conflict. Thousands of people may have been killed in South Sudan in one week, UN officials fear.
While the official nationwide death toll from the South Sudanese violence has stood at 500 for days, top UN humanitarian chief Toby Lanzer said on Tuesday that there is “absolutely no doubt in my mind that we’re into the thousands” of dead, AFP reported.
Reports from the young country, which is suffering from political and military division, indicate that the standoff between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his rival, ex-Vice President Riek Machar, who was sacked in July, is threatening to turn into an all-out civil war.
A mass grave containing 75 bodies was found in an area controlled by rebelling troops who support Machar, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said on Tuesday.
“We have discovered a mass grave in Bentiu, in Unity State, and there are reportedly at least two other mass graves in Juba,” Pillay said in a statement in Geneva.
Preliminary conclusions indicate that all the victims were Dinka soldiers, an ethnic group to which President Kiir belongs. Machar and many of his supporters belong to the country’s Nuer tribe.
The suspected ethnic killing comes amid the escalated battle between troops supporting the two rival factions. President Kiir has blamed Machar for attempting a military coup, while Machar has accused Kiir of being “dictatorial” and attempting to carry out purges.
Kiir said on Tuesday that government troops have retaken control of the key town of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, which was seized by rebels last week. The takeover was followed by the storming of a UN compound by militia gunmen in the Jonglei outpost of Akobo, in which two Indian peacekeepers and some 20 of the 17,000 ethnic Dinka civilians sheltering there were killed.
Meanwhile, troops supporting Machar are reportedly still in control of some of the country’s oil-producing regions bordering Sudan.
The fighting has already hit South Sudan’s oil production, which, according to Reuters, provides the government with 98 percent of its revenue. The country’s petroleum minister, Stephen Dhieu Dau, told Reuters on Tuesday that output has fallen from 245,000 to 200,000 barrels per day since oilfields in Unity state shut down due to clashes.