Amnesty International has accused South Sudanese army troops of committing a war crime by deliberately suffocating dozens of people stuffed into baking hot shipping container last year.
The Britain-based rights group said in a report on Thursday that the perpetrators of the war crime, which took place at a Catholic church compound in town of Leer in Unity State last October, must be brought before a court of justice and face prosecution.
The Juba government has denied the allegations against its troops.
The report is based on accounts by nearly two dozen eyewitnesses who saw the victims being forced into the container with their hands tied or saw the bodies later dragged away and dumped.
“Witnesses described hearing the detainees crying and screaming in distress and banging on the walls of the shipping container, which they said had no windows or other form of ventilation,” the report said.
“They said that civilian and military officials had direct knowledge that the detainees were in distress and dying but did nothing to help them,” the report added.
Relatives of those killed told the rights group that the victims, “were cattle keepers, traders and students, not fighters.”
According to Amnesty, one witness saw government soldiers open the container, remove four corpses and then, “close the container again on the remaining detainees who were still alive inside.”
“What we saw was tragic… the container was full of people. They had fallen over one another and on to the floor. There were so many people,” the witness added.
The massacre was first reported in Unity State last month by the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), a regional ceasefire body pushing peace efforts.
South Sudan plunged into violence in December 2013, when fighting erupted between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and defectors led by his former deputy Riek Machar around the capital, Juba.
The conflict soon turned into an all-out war between the army and the defectors, with the violence taking on an ethnic dimension that pitted the president’s Dinka tribe against Machar’s Nuer ethnic group.
Despite the August 2015 peace deal, battles persist across the country. There are numerous militia forces that do not abide by peace agreements and are driven by local agendas.
International organizations and rights group have accused both the government and rebel sides of committing war crimes during the civil war, which has killed tens of thousands and displaced more than two million people