Politically-fueled ethnic violence in South Sudan since mid-December has led to the brutal killing and abuse of thousands of civilians and sparked a government campaign to vilify the United Nations and harass UN personnel, the UN peacekeeping chief has said.

Herve Ladsous told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that despite a January 23 ceasefire agreement, forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel soldiers loyal to dismissed former vice president Riek Machar "continue to prioritise the pursuit of military gains over talks towards a comprehensive political settlement."

Fighting that broke out December 15 among presidential guards in the capital Juba quickly spread across the country and took on ethnic dimensions between the more populous Dinka tribe who support Kiir and the Nuer tribe loyal to Machar.

"Political polarisation that has been caused by the conflict now affects the lives of every single person in South Sudan as well the operations of the government and country as a whole,'' Ladsous said.

He said prelimiary inquiry reports indicate that atrocities and very severe human rights violations were committed by both sides in the conflict, and he warned that the longer the fighting goes on "the more chances for further regional intervention will grow."

Ladsous also warned that there will be no "meaningful progress'' in talks organised by the regional group IGAD to resolve the crisis until the opposition's key demand for the release of four remaining political detainees is resolved. The four went on trial for treason on March 11.

Ladsous urged the Security Council to condemn what he called a campaign against the UN peacekeeping mission - which is sheltering 75,000 of approximately 800,000 people displaced by the ongoing violence - and to demand that Kiir condemn it and instruct government officials and his party to stop it.

The anti-UN campaign has brought the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid "almost to a standstill," which is extremely critical as the rainy season will begin soon, he said.

'Lives in danger'

Ladsous said the negative campaign against the UN peacekeeping mission known as UNMISS by some local and national officials has included public demonstrations, media articles, and harassment of UN personnel "including to the point of putting their lives in danger."

In response, Ladsous said, the UN needs to consider reducing its staff and limiting its activities "to the absolute minimum related to protection, human rights monitoring and support to humanitarian assistance.''

South Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Francis Deng attributed the ``negative outcry'' against the U.N. mission known as UNMISS "to the trauma, frustrations, pain and anger caused by the devastating violence that broke out on December 15.|

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recommended that the council increase UNMISS' strength for a year to the levels in temporarily agreed to in December - 12,500 troops and 1,323 and to re-prioritise its mandate to focus on protecting civilians, delivering aid and monitoring human rights. Lucas said "questions were raised about the appropriateness of a new mandate for UNMISS."

Source: Agencies