- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The carnage in South Sudan has reached new heights, international officials say, after at least three mass graves were discovered Tuesday in the war-torn African nation, the brief existence of which is now threatened by growing political and ethnic conflict.

With tens of thousands seeking refuge from the fighting, the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to nearly double the size of its peacekeeping force on the ground in the world’s youngest country. South Sudan was born less than three years ago.

Tuesday’s vote was called at the direct urging of American officials such as U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, who told the international body this week that the dire situation “demands urgent leadership to avoid further bloodshed and to restore stability.”

U.N. officials reportedly witnessed at least 14 bodies dumped into a mass grave in the city of Bentiu; at least two other mass graves have been reported in Juba, South Sudan’s capital.

The violence has intensified in recent days and has become ethnic in nature, international officials said. Fighting broke out after forces loyal to the country’s former vice president, Riek Machar, tried to overthrow sitting South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. The two men are longtime rivals.

The coup failed, but the factions remain engaged in battle. In recent days, the fighting has grown from clashes between political forces to near all-out war between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups.

“There is a palpable fear among civilians of both Dinka and Nuer backgrounds that they will be killed on the basis of their ethnicity,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement. “There need to be clear statements and clear steps from all those in positions of political and military control that human rights violations will not be tolerated and those responsible will be brought to justice.”

U.N. officials also warned that “attacks of this kind can be the precursors to more widespread crimes,” a grim reminder of the brutal ethnic violence in Rwanda in 1994. That conflict claimed the lives of more than 800,000, according to international estimates.

The U.N. vote is a key step by the international community to prevent the death toll in South Sudan from reaching that level.

The U.N. now plans to send more than 5,000 additional peacekeeping troops to South Sudan. More than 7,500 troops, including nearly 50 U.S. military personnel, already are on the ground.

The U.S. forces were sent at President Obama’s order to protect assets such as the U.S. Embassy in Juba.

It took little time for the American forces to come under fire in South Sudan. Four were injured last week when their helicopter came under fire during an evacuation mission.

After the incident, Mr. Obama told congressional leaders he is prepared to commit more American assets if the fighting worsens.

“As I monitor the situation in South Sudan, I may take further action to support the security of U.S. citizens, personnel and property, including our embassy, in South Sudan,” the president said.

It’s unclear how many have died in the fighting. The U.N. says more than 80,000 have been displaced, and American forces — along with those of other nations around the world — have been working to evacuate their own citizens.

Meanwhile, the State Department is trying to broker a political agreement between the two sides and prevent South Sudan from dissolving into the kind of ongoing civil war that gripped Sudan — from which South Sudan was formed — for years.

U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth spoke with Mr. Kiir and said the South Sudanese leader is prepared to sit down with his foes in an effort to stop the bloodshed.

“President Kiir committed to me that he was ready to begin talks with Riek Machar to end the crisis, without preconditions, as soon as his counterpart was willing,” Mr. Booth said. “The United States emphasizes the urgency of the situation and stands ready to support these efforts as necessary.”

U.N. officials also have expressed support for a diplomatic solution to the crisis rather than a military one.

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