NAIROBI, Kenya -- The townsfolk believed that the mosque was safe. They crammed inside as rebel forces in South Sudan took control of the town from government troops. But it wasn't safe. Robbers grabbed their cash and mobile phones. Then gunmen came and opened fire on everyone, young and old.
The United Nations says hundreds of civilians were killed in the massacre last week in Bentiu, the capital of South Sudan's oil-producing Unity state, a tragic reflection of longstanding ethnic hostilities in the world's newest country.
"Piles and piles" of bodies were left behind after the shootings, said Toby Lanzer, the top U.N. aid official in South Sudan. Many were in the mosque; others were in the hospital. Still more littered the streets. The violence appears to have been incited in part by calls on the radio for revenge attacks, including rapes.
The attack, which targeted members of certain ethnic groups, was a disturbing echo of what happened two decades ago in another eastern Africa nation. Rwanda is marking the 20th anniversary this month of a genocide that killed an estimated 1 million people and also saw orders to kill broadcast by radio.
Thousands of people have been killed in South Sudan violence since December, when presidential guards splintered and fought along ethnic lines. The violence later spread across the nation, as soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, tried to put down a rebellion led by former Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer.
But Mr. Lanzer said in a phone interview Tuesday that the April 15-16 mass killings, carried out by Nuers, are "quite possibly a game-changer" in the conflict. "It's the first time we're aware of that a local radio station was broadcasting hate messages encouraging people to engage in atrocities," said Mr. Lanzer, who on Sunday and Monday was in Bentiu. "And that really accelerates South Sudan's descent into an even more difficult situation from which it needs to extract itself."
Mr. Lanzer said thousands of civilians from several ethnic groups are streaming to the U.N. peacekeeping base in Bentiu because many believe that more violence is coming. The base now holds 22,000 people -- up from 4,500 at the start of April -- but can supply only one liter of water per person per day. Some 350 people must share one toilet. "The risk of a public health crisis inside our base is enormous," he said.
Raphael Gorgeu, head of Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan, said people will die inside the U.N. base in coming days because of the water and sanitation situation.
As rebel forces entered Bentiu last week, residents were led to believe that by entering the mosque they would be safe, Mr. Lanzer said, citing accounts from survivors. But once inside, they were robbed of money and mobile phones. A short while later, gunmen began killing, both inside the mosque and inside the hospital.
The U.N. hasn't spelled out clearly exactly who the victims were, but it is likely that ethnic Dinkas were among the dead. If you were not Nuer, then nothing could save you. Even Nuers who refused to take part in the attacks were killed, according to the U.N., as were former residents of Sudan's Darfur region. The gunmen killed wantonly, including children and the elderly, Mr. Lanzer said.
U.N. officials began helping to clear the bodies from the streets and city buildings after the bloodshed. Mr. Lanzer arrived in Bentiu on the third day of that operation but still counted 150 bodies. He said the U.N. is documenting the killings and will soon have "a pretty good grasp" on the precise number killed.