UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - Sudanese army troops raped more than 200 women and girls in a Darfur town last year, in a brutal attack that should be investigated as a crime against humanity, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday.
In a 48-page report, the US-based rights organisation cast doubt over Khartoum's repeated denials that a mass rape took place in October in the town of Tabit.
At least 221 women and girls were raped when the Sudanese army launched three waves of attacks over 36 hours, beginning on Oct 30, according to the report, based on accounts from dozens of Tabit residents.
Soldiers went from house to house, looting property, beating residents and arresting men who were taken to the outskirts of the town while women and girls were raped inside their homes, HRW said.
During a two-month investigation, HRW documented 27 incidents of rape and obtained credible information on an additional 194 cases from the Tabit attacks.
The army rampage on Tabit may have been in retaliation for the abduction of a soldier or to punish residents for their support of rebel armed groups in recent years, the report said.
Two army defectors told HRW that they had been ordered by their superior officers to rape women because they were rebel supporters even though there were no fighters near Tabit at the time of the attacks.
Khartoum has repeatedly denied the rape allegations but has refused to allow the United Nations-African Union force in Darfur, Unamid, to carry out a full investigation.
Unamid was denied access to Tabit after the first reports surfaced of the attacks and when it entered the village on Nov 9, its team said it found no evidence to support the claim of mass rape.
But an internal report from the mission obtained by AFP in November said the Sudanese military had tried to intimidate villagers to suppress the allegations.
HRW urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation of the mass rape, which it said would amount to crimes against humanity if found to be part of a widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population.
The ICC has indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, but he has evaded arrest since the indictment was issued in 2009.
The report quoted a woman in her 40s whose three daughters were raped in their house, two of whom were under the age of 11.
"They raped my three daughters and me. Some of them were holding the girl down while another one was raping her. They did it one by one," the woman said.
Another woman recounted that she was severely beaten and dragged out of her house, while the soldiers raped three of her daughters, all under 15.
"They put clothes in (my daughters's) mouths so that you could not hear the screaming," she said.
Researchers spoke by phone to over 50 residents and former residents, local human rights monitors, government officials and Unamid staff as part of their investigation of the mass rape.
The attack on Tabit occurred a few weeks before the Sudanese army launched an operation to crush insurgents in Darfur who have been fighting Khartoum since 2003.
Concern has been growing over the brutality of a new government force, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), that has been carrying out attacks on villages in Darfur.
A UN panel of experts report on Sudan reported last month that 3,000 villages were burned in Darfur in 2014, mostly during attacks by pro-government forces.
Half a million people have been displaced by attacks in Darfur last year, and 70,000 during the first three weeks of 2015.
HRW called on the United Nations and the African Union to press Sudan to allow peacekeepers to have access to Tabit to protect residents from further attacks.
"The deliberate attack on Tabit and the mass rape of the town's women and girls is a new low in the catalogue of atrocities in Darfur," said Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch Africa director.