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South Sudan government forces killed 114 civilians, UN says

Last Updated May 19, 2017 at 12:40 pm EDT

Soldiers cheer at a ceremony marking the 34th anniversary of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), attended by President Salva Kiir, in the capital Juba, South Sudan, Thursday, May 18, 2017. South Sudan's civil war has killed tens of thousands and driven out more than 1.5 million people in the past three years, creating the world's largest refugee crisis. (AP Photo/Samir Bol)

JUBA, South Sudan – South Sudanese pro-government forces killed 114 civilians in a single town last year and brutally raped girls and women in front of their families amid growing ethnic violence in the country’s civil war, a new United Nations report said Friday.

The investigation released by the U.N. human rights office said those cases and other abuses in Yei between July and January may amount to crimes against humanity. Abuses included the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, attacks on funerals, looting and burning.

Yei is where The Associated Press late last year witnessed bodies with their hands bound. Satellite images showed “widespread burning of homes and businesses,” the report said.

The new report pointed out the “startling level of impunity in South Sudan” that has fed cycles of deadly ethnic violence.

South Sudan government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny rejected the report’s findings, saying the government is operating within the law. “It’s not true,” he told the AP. “(Ethnic) Dinkas in that area were being targeted by rebels.” Ethnic Dinkas dominate the military and government of President Salva Kiir.

Opposition forces also have been responsible for abuses in South Sudan’s conflict, now in its fourth year. “The extent of the abuses by armed opposition groups remains unclear due to lack of access to areas where these groups are active,” the report said.

Until last year, Yei had been largely peaceful with 200,000 to 300,000 people from various tribes. But after deadly violence erupted in the capital, Juba, in July, fighting spread to parts of South Sudan that had been spared by the conflict. As rebel leader Riek Machar fled into neighbouring Congo, fighting broke out in Yei and elsewhere along his path.

Tens of thousands have been killed in the civil war. More than 1.8 million have fled the country in what has become the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.

The U.N. called on all sides to lay down their arms and for the government to investigate abuses and prosecute those responsible.