U.N. Blames Rebel Forces For South Sudan Massacre

Hundreds of civilians have been massacred in the South Sudan town of Bentiu. For more, Steve Inskeep talks to Andrew Green, the South Sudan bureau chief for the Voice of America.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's go to one of the world's most sorrowful places, South Sudan, a country only three years old that gained its independence from Northern Sudan after two decades of war. And now South Sudan is at war with itself.

The United Nations says rebel forces loyal to the country's former vice president massacred hundreds of civilians this past week. It happened in a town called Bentiu. The United Nations' mission in South Sudan says piles and piles of bodies were found in Bentiu's churches and mosques, where the victims had sought shelter.

We're going to talk about this with Andrew Green. He is the South Sudan bureau chief for the Voice of America. And he is in South Sudan's capital. Welcome to the program, sir.

ANDREW GREEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: How did this massacre happen?

GREEN: Well, there's been pretty consistent fighting in the northeastern part of the country for the past four months, and the rebel forces have announced that they're going to target states that are oil-producing, including Unity state, where the capital is Bentiu. So last week, they launched an offensive to take the town, and were able to take control of it last Wednesday. The reports that we're hearing are that in the immediate aftermath of taking the town, they attacked civilians who had sought shelter in mosques and churches, and even patients in a hospital were killed in their beds. And it sounds like an extremely brutal and devastating attack on a scale that South Sudan hasn't seen in the last four months.

INSKEEP: All in a state that you say is called Unity. Is there any effort at unity at this moment? Is there any effort at a cease-fire?

GREEN: Well, actually, quite the opposite. The government forces announced yesterday that they're starting an offensive to retake the areas of Unity state that they've lost over the past two weeks. So we're expecting a lot more fighting. Both sides are trying to position themselves ahead of an upcoming rainy season that's going to slow movements and stop fighting. So, really, the government is trying to regain and that it's lost, especially in Unity and Upper Nile states where there's heavy oil production, which the government is dependent on.

INSKEEP: The United Nations has 8,500 troops there. Are they doing anything?

GREEN: They are. They are protecting tens of thousands of civilians who have sought shelter at their bases across the country, although, there are reports - including from Unity state this week - that the peacekeepers are overstretched and they're calling for reinforcements. The 5,000 troops that the U.N. promised to send on Christmas Eve last year have not fully arrived yet. There are some serious vulnerabilities that were exposed last Thursday, when armed youths attacked a U.N. compound in Bor and were able to reach the compound and killed dozens of civilians who had been seeking shelter there.

INSKEEP: Meaning that these young people were well enough armed that they could overcome whatever U.N. guards were there?

GREEN: There were reports that the youth were carrying rocket-propelled grenades and other arms, and were able to get into the compound and start firing on civilians before peacekeepers were able to expel them from the compound. The reports that we're hearing are that at least 50 civilians were killed within the Bor compound, and these are people who had been seeking shelter from the fighting in the town earlier.

INSKEEP: Mr. Green, when this conflict began, it was described - at least to the outside world - as a personality conflict between two leading politicians who each had a faction behind him, and that it became more and more violent. Now that it's clearly a full-blown civil war, this is a strange thing to ask, but is it about anything? Is there any sense that there is a larger issue at stake here beyond political personalities?

GREEN: That's a good question. I think you're correct in saying that it did start as a political squabble between the president and his former deputy, Riek Machar, that got out of control. And I think this has now turned into, at least on some level, ethnic warfare. But what's particularly worrying, especially in the case of Bentiu, is we're going to be seeing a lot the communities in South Sudan might be turning on each other on a level that they hadn't before last week.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you're saying that what it's about now is getting vengeance for the violence that has already happened. There's actually not a particular cause or issue of division here.

GREEN: South Sudan has always been divided along ethnic lines. You have a long history of both fighting, but reconciling. And it seems now that the political leaders may be taking advantage of those ethnic divisions to fuel the conflict. And I think a major concern has to be that the political leaders aren't going to be able to control it anymore.

INSKEEP: Andrew Green of Voice of America, thanks very much.

GREEN: Thank you.

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