South Sudan promises probe into claims girls raped, burnt alive

Armed South Sudanese government soldiers ride in a pickup truck near a village in Bor, on January 26, 2014 (AFP Photo/Ali Ngethi)

Juba (AFP) - South Sudan's government said Sunday it was investigating United Nations allegations that its troops raped then burnt girls alive inside their homes during recent fighting in the country's civil war.

In a report released on Tuesday, rights investigators from the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said the 18-month-old war had seen "new brutality and intensity", including gang rape, torture and gruesome murders.

"We have read the report and these egregious acts could only have been carried out by egregious individuals. Our army punishes with impunity any acts that deviate from the normal conducts of war," South Sudan's military spokesman Philip Aguer said in a statement.

"Our army was created to protect our women and children, ensure their safety and their dignity. If in fact the UN report is accurate, then the few individuals responsible for these heinous crimes have brought shame to the SPLA and that will not be tolerated," he added.

The spokesman said "anyone deemed to have participated in these horrific crimes will be brought to justice before our court system and before God."

Civil war began in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings that have split the poverty-stricken, landlocked country along ethnic lines.

The government side, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), launched a major offensive against rebel forces in April, with fierce fighting in northern Unity state's northern Mayom district, once a key oil producing area.

The UN report was based on horrific accounts from 115 victims and eyewitnesses. Investigators said they had collected at least nine separate incidents where "women and girls were burnt in tukuls (huts) after being gang-raped" as well as scores of cases of sexual violence, which included numerous cases of mothers raped in front of their children.

Others were simply "shot and killed" after being gang-raped, it added.

Rebel forces have also been accused of carrying out widespread atrocities, including rape, killings and, like the government, the recruitment of armies of child soldiers.

The rebels meanwhile said in a statement reporting fresh clashes in northern Upper Nile State, another key oil hub, that a helicopter gunship had been shot down during an attempt by government troops to retake the state capital of Malakal.

The rebels also claimed to have battled government troops in the southern town of Nimule which guards the main border crossing with Uganda, a key government ally that has troops inside South Sudan backing Kiir.

Their statement said they "will be forced to close the trade route between Uganda and South Sudan at the Nimule border unless Salva Kiir's government accepts peace and signs an agreement."

There was no immediate comment from the government on the rebel claims.