The U.N. mission in South Sudan gave weapons to a top rebel general just weeks after civil war began three years ago, and his forces went on to carry out one of the war’s worst atrocities, according to a report released Thursday.
The Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group, found that in December 2013
U.N. officials in the town of Bentiu in northern Unity state handed dozens of weapons, as well as ammunition, to rebel general James Koang.
Four months later, Koang’s troops killed hundreds of civilians sheltering in a mosque and a hospital in Bentiu, according to the United Nations and human rights groups. Koang has said in interviews that those killed were not civilians but members of a pro-government militia. The report did not say whether the weapons given by the United Nations were used in the massacre.
Asked about the allegations, the U.N. peacekeeping office in New York said in a statement that the U.N. mission had turned over the weapons to Koang shortly before he split with the government, “in response to direct threats” from the commander.
South Sudan’s war, which entered its fourth year Thursday, has pitted soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, against those backing the former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer. Tens of thousands of people have died in battles that have played out along ethnic lines, and U.N. officials and human rights groups have accused both sides of committing crimes against humanity. A top U.N. human rights official recently warned that the country is on the verge of “all-out ethnic civil war” that could result in genocide.
The United Nations established a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan in 2011 that has grown to more than 13,000 soldiers and police officers.
Throughout the war, the U.N. mission has found itself caught in the crossfire, accused by each side of supporting the other, with U.N. bases at times coming under attack. U.N. investigations, aid groups and research groups have accused the U.N. mission of failing to adequately protect civilians, including people on and near its bases.
According to the new report, U.N. officials in South Sudan said in interviews that they gave about 80 assault rifles, five machine guns, grenades and ammunition to Koang. At the time, U.N. officials in Bentiu reported to the mission’s headquarters in Juba that there had been a transfer of 40 rifles, the report said. It quoted an unidentified rebel, meanwhile, as saying they received 500 guns from the United Nations.
The weapons came from soldiers and civilians who fled to the U.N. base in Bentiu for protection during the fighting and handed over their weapons to peacekeepers, according to the report.
Koang, a soft-spoken Nuer who was the top government military official in Bentiu when the war began, quickly defected and took control of Bentiu. He asked the United Nations to give him the guns, according to the report. U.N. officials complied, apparently because they considered the general a friend, the report said.
“When [James] Koang took power, we all knew him,” said one unidentified official from the U.N. mission in South Sudan who was quoted in the report. “The majority of the opposition leaders in Bentiu had been our usual interlocutors. We had even trained them.”
The report said that U.N. officials in Bentiu asked their bosses in the capital for guidance on the matter but none came, so they made their own decision. A subsequent request by Koang for more weapons was turned down, it said.
The U.N. statement issued Saturday said that Koang was still part of the military at the time the weapons were handed over, and officially defected later in the month. The arms had been left on the periphery of the U.N. compound by soldiers fleeing the conflict, it said.
The United Nations and the U.S. government have imposed sanctions on Koang, with the U.S. Treasury Department saying that his rebels had “targeted civilians, including women and children, with killing, sexual violence and attacks on schools, hospitals, religious sites, and locations where civilians were seeking refuge.”
Meanwhile, the chief of the U.N. mission in South Sudan at the start of the war, Hilde Johnson, tried to give the government in Juba weapons that had been collected from Nuer who had fled to a U.N. base there after government soldiers went door-to-door executing Nuer citizens, according to the report.
The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York overruled Johnson, the report said, citing a cable sent to her from the headquarters. After Johnson stepped down in July 2014, her successor destroyed the weapons, the report said.
The Small Arms Survey report said the episodes reveal how the U.N. mission, known as UNMISS, struggled to maintain unified command and control and to understand that the South Sudanese officials on both sides who they had worked with before the crisis were now liable to commit atrocities.
The two cases show that “UNMISS failed to adapt quickly enough to the changed circumstances provoked by the conflict, and that it lacked neutrality,” the report said. “Both issues also show that the conflict triggered divisions within UNMISS” over which forces to support.
The South Sudan government still accuses the U.N. mission of supporting the rebels, in part because some 200,000 mostly Nuer people are staying at U.N. bases for fear of attack by government forces. The government has not presented evidence to back such accusations. People on the bases are also critical of U.N. peacekeepers, accusing them of standing by or running away when Kiir’s troops have sprayed bullets inside.
This story has been updated with a statement by the United Nations.