By Justin Sink - 04/22/14 11:22 PM EDT
The White House said Tuesday it was “horrified” by reports that rebels in South Sudan had slaughtered hundreds of civilians who sought refuge in houses of worship amid the ongoing ethnic violence that has gripped the fledgling nation.
“These acts of violence are an abomination,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. “They are a betrayal of the trust the South Sudanese people have put in their leaders. This is exactly the violence and suffering the South Sudanese people fought for decades to escape.”
According to the United Nations, members of the Dinka ethnic group — supporters of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir — were targeted by Nuer soldiers loyal to dismissed Vice President Riek Machar.
A U.N. report said more than 200 civilians were killed and another 400 were wounded at a mosque, where they sought refuge. Dinka men, women and children were also targeted at a hospital, Catholic church, and World Food Program compound where they sought refuge.
“Bulldozers have buried the dead in mass graves, and the number of people seeking protection at the United Nations camp in Bentiu has grown from 8,000 to more than 22,000 in only two weeks,” Carney said.
Rebel leaders also used a local FM radio station to broadcast “messages declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community,” the U.N. said in a statement.
The White House also condemned a Dinka attack on a U.N. base last week, where Nuer civilians were sheltering. Carney said the U.S. was “equally appalled” by that attack, which left at least 48 dead and dozens more wounded.
“Both President Kiir and Riek Machar must make clear that attacks on civilians are unacceptable, perpetrators of violence on both sides must be brought to justice, and the cycle of violence that has plagued South Sudan for too long must come to an end,” Carney said.
Earlier this month, the president signed an executive order enabling the U.S. to impose sanctions against the country as the conflict teetered on full-out civil war. A cease fire negotiated in January has done little to curb the violence, which has left thousands dead and more than a million people displaced from their homes.
The executive order enabled President Obama to freeze any American-held assets of leaders in South Sudan deemed to be obstructing the political process there. American businesses would also be blocked from doing business with those targeted for sanctions.
The United Kingdom and Norway have also threatened sanctions on both the South Sudanese government and rebel fighters.