South Sudanese government troops crushed fleeing civilians with tanks, then reversed to check they had killed them, carried out public gang rapes and burned people alive, a rights group said Wednesday.
The report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has shocking allegations of atrocities committed by government forces in the ongoing 19-month-old war, documenting "deliberate attacks on civilians" that it said constitute war crimes.
"They were running with the tanks after the people, and then after they hit them they would roll back over them, to confirm that they were dead," one woman told HRW.
The attacks were allegedly carried out by government troops and an allied militia from the Bul Nuer tribe.
Another witness, a 30-year-old woman, said troops in a tank hunted down her nephew.
"I saw him... he was crushed before he reached the river... we were running together, he ran in order to hide," she told HRW.
Another described finding the squashed bodies of her two male relatives.
"Their bodies had been grinded," she said, one of a string of testimonies documented in the HRW report, titled "They Burned it All", based on interviews with 174 victims and witnesses from the northern battleground state of Unity.
- Rebel split risks worsening war -
Civilians fled into swamps to escape, but troops chased them down using amphibious armoured vehicles, raking hiding places with machine guns.
"They were hunting for cows and people," one woman in the Koch area of Unity state said.
Other victims recount government soldiers castrating a man and a 15-year old boy, all part of a deliberate tactic to drive people out of the villages, HRW said.
HRW documented murders "of civilian women and men, including children and the elderly, some by hanging, others by shooting, or being burned alive."
South Sudan's 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 has split the poverty-stricken, landlocked country along ethnic lines.
In a likely further worsening of the war, rebel forces have split after Machar sacked a key commander, the powerful warlord Peter Gadet, who was slapped with United Nations sanctions earlier this month.
Rebel spokesman Mabior Garang told AFP it was "an ordinary reshuffle" but declined to give details.
But a diplomat monitoring stalled talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa -- where at least seven ceasefires have been agreed and then rapidly broken -- said it would make striking a lasting deal harder.
"Any further fracturing of opposition forces makes a paper agreement harder to be implemented on the ground," the diplomat said.
- Rape a 'normal thing' -
The government side, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), launched a major offensive against rebel forces in April, with fierce fighting in Unity, once a key oil producing area.
Rebel forces have also been accused of carrying out atrocities, including rape, killings and, like the government, the recruitment of armies of child soldiers.
The United Nations base in the capital of Unity State, Bentiu, now hosts over 100,000 civilians, more than the ruined town itself, which has swapped hands between government and rebels several times during the war.
Researchers who have worked in South Sudan for years said the "sheer scale" of destruction has been "staggering", with tens of thousands of cattle stolen, the economic lifeline for the people.
For this report, HRW documented 63 rape cases, but said they believed it was only a "fraction" of the total. One woman said rape had become "just a normal thing."
Victim accounts of the attacks are horrific.
"One man put a gun to the back of my head and said 'Watch how we will rape your daughter,'" a victim told HRW.
Another woman said soldiers, "only raped me once because they saw I had recently given birth."
There was no immediate response from South Sudan's government, which has said it is also investigating a recent UN report on alleged atrocities by its troops, including reports that soldiers raped then burned girls alive.