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Rebel leader denies blame for South Sudan massacre

April 23, 2014 at 6:07 PM EST
South Sudan massacre
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A massacre in the world’s newest nation has prompted condemnation from the White House. This comes as efforts to resolve the political strife in South Sudan and ease a looming humanitarian crisis suffered another setback this week, after reconciliation talks were postponed.

And a warning to viewers: Some images in this report may be disturbing.

The U.N. convoy made its way through the streets of Bentiu over the weekend, and bodies quickly came into view. They were strewn in the streets and piled in front of the mosque, where people had sought safety.

Toby Lanzer, a U.N. representative in South Sudan, witnessed the aftermath of the killings firsthand.

TOBY LANZER, Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General: What I have so far seen in the mosque and in other parts of town has really been very, very heart-wrenching. Certainly, atrocities have been committed here on very significant scale.

JUDY WOODRUFF: South Sudan’s foreign minister charged that rebels of the Nuer ethnic group, led by the country’s former vice president, were behind last week’s violence.

BARNABA BENJAMIN, Minister of Foreign Affairs, South Sudan: The rebels of Dr. Riek Machar have violated the cessation of hostilities and have actually — have carried out a massacre in Bentiu town, where civilians were targeted at the churches, at the mosques, and at the hospital. It is one of the most disgusting events one has ever seen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Machar rejected the accusations, and said his troops could not have been involved.

South Sudan’s 11 million people are made up of about 60 indigenous ethnic groups, the largest being the Nuer and the Dinka. The country has struggled with ethnic fighting since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011. But U.N. officials say that, in Bentiu, the targets included not only Dinka, but traders from Darfur and Nuer people who refused to cheer the rebels’ arrival.

President Obama condemned the killing. In a statement, he said: “These acts of violence are an abomination. They are a betrayal of the trust the South Sudanese people have put in their leaders.”

Meanwhile, thousands of people headed for protection at the U.N.’s base in Bentiu. It now holds 22,000 civilians, but they’re limited to just one liter of water per person per day.