LONDON - South Sudanese government forces attacked and killed scores of civilians, carried out public gang rapes and burned people alive during a recent military offensive in northern Unity State, a rights group said on Wednesday.
Government troops and allied militia launched a campaign in April against rebel forces in oil-producing Unity, in a civil war which broke out in December 2013 when a political crisis sparked fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels allied with his former deputy Riek Machar.
The attacks on civilians and the widespread burning and pillaging of property in the recent offensive amount to war crimes, while the killings and rapes may also constitute crimes against humanity, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"Brutal attacks on fleeing civilians combined with widespread burning of villages, food, and other items that people need to survive suggests that the government's aim was to forcibly displace people from their homes," HRW Africa director Daniel Bekele said in a statement.
South Sudan's presidential spokesman said the government categorically rejected HRW's allegations of human rights abuses, rapes and killing of unarmed civilians, and described the claims as "baseless".
If it came to light that government forces had perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, they would be brought to justice, Ateny Wek Ateny told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.