The United Nations has accused the government and rebel forces in South Sudan of committing crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and other types of sexual violence against civilians during five months of fighting.
Thursday’s accusation came after the publication of a 62-page report that called for investigations into violations of humanitarian law by both parties.
The violations detailed include extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, rape and other sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and detention, targeted attacks against civilians not taking part in the fighting, violence aimed at spreading terror among civilians and attacks on hospitals and UN peacekeepers.
Violence erupted in the country in December between troops backing President Salva Kiir and soldiers loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar.
The fighting has exacerbated ethnic tensions between Kiir’s Dinka tribe and Machar’s Nuer tribe and the UN has warned that the violence could spiral into genocide.
"The number of civilian casualties is high, likely in the thousands, although to date no one has been able to establish an exact figure," the report said.
Several UN Security Council members on Friday called for the situation in South Sudan to be referred to the International Criminal Court after receiving a briefing on the conflict.
A 'deep hatred'
Hilde Johnson, head of the UN mission in South Sudan, said the violence had "put the country back decades" and if the fighting did not stop soon, the damage to the country could be "irreversible".
"The hatred is already actually extremely deep and it's going to be a very significant challenge to bridge those differences, to overcome them and to build a nation," she said.
Meanwhile, the report recommended increased efforts to protect civilians mainly through the addition of troops.
UN peacekeepers are protecting nearly 80,000 civilians at bases around South Sudan "the first instance of any United Nations mission providing protection to civilians facing imminent threat of physical violence on this scale or for this length of time," according to the report.
However, it warned that the UN mission continued to receive reports that when civilians leave the UN bases, they "have been subjected to ill-treatment, sexually assaulted, arbitrarily detained, or even killed".