The head of a United Nations agency has called for an investigation into the killing of at least 87 people who were discovered in a mass grave in Sudan’s West Darfur region.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk has demanded a “prompt, thorough and independent investigation” into the grim discovery outside the region’s capital El-Geneina.
Türk’s demand came shortly before the International Criminal Court (ICC) said it launched a fresh investigation into alleged war crimes in Sudan, following 90 days of escalating violence between the warring factions of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan made the announcement in a report to the UN Security Council Thursday, saying “we are in the midst of a human catastrophe.”
Inside the mass grave were bodies of ethnic Masalit who along with other non-Arab communities are often targeted by Arab militias, supported by the RSF, according to Human Rights Watch.
The deceased were allegedly killed last month by the paramilitary RSF and their allied militia, the UN Human Rights Office said in a statement Thursday.
“According to credible information gathered by the Office, those buried in the mass grave were killed by RSF and their allied militia around 13-21 June in El-Geneina’s Al-Madaress and Al-Jamarek districts…,” the statement said.
The statement added that the bodies included victims of the violence that occurred following the assassination of Khamis Abbaker, the Governor of West Darfur, on June 14, and others who died due to untreated injuries.
Türk strongly condemned the killings and said he was “appalled by the callous and disrespectful way the dead, along with their families and communities, were treated.”
He urged the RSF and other parties involved in the conflict to abide by international law and facilitate prompt searches for the deceased, and their collection and evacuation, without discrimination based on ethnic background.
“The RSF’s leadership and their allied militia as well as all parties to an armed conflict are required to ensure that the dead are properly handled, and their dignity protected,” Türk stressed.
West Darfur remains one of the most conflict-ridden areas in the Sudanese Darfur region, with a long history of severe violence.
International aid agency Save the Children said Thursday its staff fleeing the city of El Geneina, the West Darfur capital, saw hundreds of bodies, including those belonging to children, along the road.
“We spent 49 days indoors as outside the snipers did not stop. Our only wish was to get up in the early morning hours to get one jerry can of water before the fighting starts again,” said Ahmed, who works for Save the Children in West Darfur, according to a press release from the organization.
“When we finally managed to leave there were bodies everywhere on the ground in Geneina town. There were thousands of men, women and children, no one was spared. There are flies everywhere,” said Ahmed, who recently escaped the violence and is now taking refuge in Kassala state.
Last month CNN also reported that activists had identified hundreds of bodies left on the streets of West Darfur.
The recent killings reflect the atrocities committed during the early 2000s, where hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in an ethnic cleansing campaign led by the Janjaweed, an Arab militia that preceded the RSF.
ICC opens new investigation
ICC Chief Prosecutor Khan called for urgent action into the alleged war crimes, saying that attacks on civilians, particularly targeting children and women, are prohibited by the Rome Statute.
“The current security situation in Sudan and the escalation of violence during the current hostilities are matters of great concern to the Office,” he said.
“As we speak there are women and children in fear of the lives.”
Khan also said the ICC was investigating reports of fresh crimes in Darfur after the UN’s revelations about the mass grave of at least 87 people in Darfur.
The ICC has been investigating crimes in Sudan’s Darfur region since 2005 after a referral by the UN Security Council, and the Hague-based court has charged former leader Omar al-Bashir with offenses including genocide.
Khan said the risk of further war crimes was “deepened by the clear and long-standing disregard demonstrated by relevant actors, including the government of Sudan, for their obligations.”
CNN’s Stephanie Busari and Jonny Hallam contributed to this report