Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon fired the commander of the peacekeeping force in South Sudan on Tuesday after an independent investigation sharply criticized the military response to deadly attacks in July on a U.N. compound housing 27,000 displaced people.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric announced the dismissal of Kenyan Lt. Gen. Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki shortly after the executive summary of the investigators' report was released, saying the U.N. chief was "deeply distressed" by the findings.
The report also criticized the U.N. mission and its peacekeepers for failing to respond to an attack on the Terrain Camp, a private compound just over a kilometre (0.6 miles) away where U.N. staff, aid workers and local staff were robbed, beaten, raped and killed by armed government soldiers.
South Sudan, the world's youngest country, has been riven by ethnic violence since shortly after gaining its independence from Sudan in 2011. Civil war broke out in 2013 when government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, battled rebels led by his former vice-president Riek Machar, who is a Nuer. A peace agreement was signed in August 2015, but fighting, that has left tens of thousands dead and more than 2 million displaced, continues.
The report summary said that during July's crisis in the capital, Juba, "government and opposition forces fired indiscriminately, striking U.N. facilities and (civilian protection) sites." A confidential U.N. report obtained by The Associated Press in September said Kiir and senior members in his government directed the fighting and had significant command and control over their forces.
Among the targets were the U.N. peacekeeping base known as UN House and the adjacent camp where some 27,000 displaced civilians, who are Nuer, had sought safety and the Terrain Camp.
The report said "a lack of leadership on the part of key senior mission personnel culminated in a chaotic and ineffective response to the violence" at UN House and the compound for displaced civilians.
"The force did not operate under a unified command, resulting in multiple and sometimes conflicting orders to the four troop contingents from China, Ethiopia, Nepal and India, and ultimately underusing the more than 1,800 infantry troops at UN House," it said.
In three days of fighting in July, at least 73 people were killed including more than 20 internally displaced people who had sought U.N. protection. Two Chinese peacekeepers were among those killed and several were wounded; 182 buildings on the UN House compound were struck by bullets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, and thousands of internally displaced people fled into UN House, the report said.
The report said confusing senior leadership of the peacekeeping force and the lack of leadership on the ground, where the Chinese battalion commander had been appointed as the incident commander, "contributed to incidents of poor performance among the military and police contingents at UN House."
This included "at least two instances in which the Chinese battalion abandoned some of its defensive positions" and an "inadequate" performance by Nepalese police to stop looting inside UN House by some displaced people and control the crowd, it said.
When government soldiers forcibly entered the Terrain Camp and began looting and entering accommodations, the report said, the U.N. mission "failed to respond" to immediate calls for help from some of the 70 civilians there.
All four peacekeeping contingents turned down a request to send a quick reaction force to the camp, "indicating their troops were fully committed" at UN House, it said.
The investigators were unable to verify allegations that peacekeepers failed to respond to acts of sexual violence committed in front of them a week later. But the investigators said they received other information suggesting "poor performance by peacekeepers in protecting civilians from sexual violence" near civilian protection sites.
"After the crisis, the force and police components continued to display a risk-averse posture unsuited to protecting civilians from sexual violence and other opportunistic attacks," the report said.
The investigators, led by retired Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, recommended that "peacekeepers, commanders and relevant troop contributing countries should be held accountable for failures to protect" civilians.
Dujarric, the U.N. spokesman, told reporters that Ban asked "for the immediate replacement of the force commander." He said disciplinary action is also expected against others in the mission.
Dujarric announced on Oct. 21 that Ellen Margrethe Loj, the U.N. special representative and head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, who was supposed to retire at the end of August but chose to remain after the July crisis until the situation could stabilize, is leaving at the end of November.
The investigators made many other recommendations, including to improve training and contingency planning, and said the U.N. "should promptly develop an action plan with short timelines" to restore its credibility in South Sudan.
Federico Borello, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict which released a report on the Juba violence last month, called the findings "a welcome step forward."
"The summary has strong and important calls for accountability for the failure to protect civilians in South Sudan, and the decision to name specific contingents implicated in under-performance is significant," he said.