'UN peacekeepers didn't budge as South Sudanese troops went on killing, rape spree'

Peacekeeper troops from China deployed by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), patrol on foot outside the premises of the UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Juba, South Sudan, on Oct 4, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

JUBA, South Sudan (NYTIMES) - As South Sudanese troops entered the Terrain Hotel and began attacking the civilians - many of them Western aid workers - who had sought refuge inside, frantic pleas for help to UN peacekeepers stationed about a kilometre away went unanswered.

That was one of the sharply critical conclusions of a report, issued on Tuesday (Nov 1), into the performance of the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, where in July government soldiers went on a killing, raping and looting spree in the capital, Juba.

That mayhem worsened South Sudan's 3-year-old civil war, overshadowed the fifth anniversary of independence and caused foreign aid groups to rethink their commitments there.

The peacekeeping mission's disorganised response also laid bare the unwillingness, or inability, of its troops to protect civilians in South Sudan, further eroding the already tarnished credibility of UN peacekeeping.

A panel of outside investigators, appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, said in its report that "a lack of leadership on the part of key senior Mission personnel culminated in a chaotic and ineffective response to the violence."

Mr Ban said in a statement that he was "deeply distressed by these findings", and reiterated his "outrage over the acts of violence committed in Juba in July and the continuing betrayal of the people of South Sudan by too many of its leaders".

His spokesman, Mr Stephane Dujarric, told reporters at a daily news briefing that Mr Ban had "asked for the immediate replacement of the force commander".

That commander, Lt Gen Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki of Kenya, was appointed less than six months ago and was described in an official announcement at the time as a highly accomplished international military officer with 34 years of experience.

In days of fighting that convulsed Juba, the inquiry said, two Chinese peacekeepers were killed and several wounded; 182 buildings in the UN compound were struck by bullets, mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades as thousands of civilians sought refuge there.

The investigation found that the peacekeeping force, composed of troops from China, Ethiopia, Nepal and India, did not operate under a unified command. It received conflicting orders, and in at least two instances the Chinese contingent abandoned its posts.

The investigation also found that Nepali members of the force failed to stop looting and to control crowds inside the compound.

The report's findings suggest a pattern of lax responses by peacekeepers in protecting South Sudanese civilians. This year, panels appointed by the UN concluded that some peacekeepers had retreated rather than stop an attack in February, when South Sudanese soldiers overran a UN camp in Malakal, in the eastern part of the country.

One of the mission's most serious lapses was its failure on July 11 to respond to the attacks in the Terrain Hotel, which included sexual violence by armed South Sudanese soldiers against civilians. Among the victims were five UN staff members and more than a dozen other humanitarian relief workers.

Despite frantic phone calls for help to the mission's headquarters, the investigation found, rescuers never came. Many victims were rescued by a private security company the next morning.

"During the attack, civilians were subjected to and witnessed gross human rights violations, including murder, intimidation, sexual violence and acts amounting to torture perpetrated by armed government soldiers," the investigation said in describing the Terrain Hotel violence.

Earlier accounts of what happened at the hotel have quoted witnesses as saying the South Sudanese soldiers spent hours looting the hotel grounds, then shot their way into a bathroom where female aid workers were hiding, pulled them into an adjacent room and raped them one by one.

They also fatally shot a South Sudanese journalist who was working on a US Agency for International Development project.

The investigators said they could not confirm other instances in which peacekeepers in South Sudan were accused of failing to respond to sexual violence that they might have witnessed on July 17-18.

The investigation, led by Mr Patrick Cammaert, a retired major general from the Netherlands, spent much of September gathering information. The inquiry included 67 interviews with victims, witnesses, and ministers and officials from South Sudan.

The UN peacekeeping operations have been troubled in recent years by allegations that its soldiers have sexually abused civilians in the Central African Republic. And peacekeepers have been implicated in causing a cholera epidemic in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there.

A month after the attacks in Juba, the UN Security Council ordered thousands of additional troops, mostly from neighbouring nations, to bolster the South Sudan peacekeeping mission's 12,000-member force.

South Sudan has been ravaged by an on-again, off-again civil war since 2013, centred on a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and the opposition leader, Riek Machar. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

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