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Sudanese people, who fled the violence in their country and newly arrived, wait to be registered at the camp near the border between Sudan and Chad in Adre, Chad, on April 26.MAHAMAT RAMADANE/Reuters

The UN human rights office said on Thursday at least 87 people, including women and children had been buried in a mass grave in Sudan’s West Darfur, saying it had credible information they were killed by the country’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

RSF officials denied any involvement, saying the paramilitary group was not a party to the conflict in West Darfur.

Ethnically motivated bloodshed has escalated in recent weeks in step with fighting between rival military factions that erupted in April and has brought the country to the brink of civil war. In El Geneina, witnesses and rights groups have reported waves of attacks by the RSF and Arab militias against the non-Arab Masalit people, including shootings at close range.

“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,” the UN statement said.

Local people were forced to dispose of the bodies including those of women and children in the shallow grave in an open area near the city between June 20-21, it added. Some of the people had died from untreated injuries, it said.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the killing of civilians and hors de combat individuals, and I am further appalled by the callous and disrespectful way the dead, along with their families and communities, were treated,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk in the same statement, calling for an investigation.

An RSF senior official who declined to be identified said it “completely denies any connection to the events in West Darfur as we are not party to it, and we did not get involved in a conflict as the conflict is a tribal one.”

Another RSF source said it was being accused due to political motivations from the Masalit and others. He reiterated that the group was ready to participate in an investigation and to hand over any of its forces found to have broken the law.

It was not possible to determine exactly what portion of the dead were Masalits, a UN spokesperson added.

The ethnic killings have raised fears of a repeat of the atrocities perpetuated in Darfur after 2003, when “Janjaweed” militias from which the RSF was formed helped the government crush a rebellion by mainly non-Arab groups in Darfur, killing some 300,000 people. Sudanese civilians have fled the area on foot, some having been killed or shot as they escaped.

“This report is a good first step, but more efforts are needed to uncover more violations,” said Ibrahim, a refugee in neighbouring Chad, who asked to withhold his last name for fear of retribution.

Army spokesperson Brigadier General Nabil Abdullah told Reuters the incident “rises to the level of war crimes and these kinds of crimes should not pass without accountability.”

“This rebel militia is not against the army but against the Sudanese citizen, and its project is a racist project and a project of ethnic cleansing,” he said.

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court has launched an investigation into a surge of hostilities in Sudan’s Darfur region since mid-April, including reports of killings, rapes, arson, displacement and crimes affecting children, the top prosecutor told the United Nations on Thursday.

The regular army and paramilitary RSF have been battling in the capital Khartoum and other areas of Sudan in a power struggle that exploded in mid-April.

More than 3 million people have been uprooted, including more than 700,000 who have fled into neighbouring countries. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that Sudan, Africa’s third largest country by land area, was on the brink of full-scale civil war that could destabilize the wider region.

“The office can confirm that it has commenced investigations in relation to incidents occurring in the context of the present hostilities,” Prosecutor Karim Khan’s office said in a report to the UN Security Council.

ICC prosecutors are “closely tracking reports of extrajudicial killings, burning of homes and markets, and looting, in Al Geneina, West Darfur, as well as the killing and displacement of civilians in North Darfur and other locations across Darfur,” the report said.

It is also examining “allegations of sexual and gender-based crimes, including mass rapes and alleged reports of violence against and affecting children,” it said.

In El Geneina, witnesses have reported waves of attacks by Arab militias and the RSF against the non-Arab Masalit people, the largest community in the city, that have sent tens of thousands of people fleeing to nearby Chad.

While the ICC cannot currently work in Sudan due to the security situation, it intends to do so as soon as possible, the report said. Under a 2005 UN Security Council resolution, its jurisdiction is limited to the Darfur region.

The ICC has four outstanding arrest warrants related to the earlier fighting in Darfur between 2003 and 2008, including one against former Sudanese President Omar al Bashir on charges of genocide.

Mr. al Bashir and two of his former ministers who are also wanted by the ICC for alleged war crimes in Darfur had been in custody in Sudan. The army said Mr. al Bashir and one of the former ministers, Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein, had been moved to a military hospital before the outbreak of the fighting. The other former minister, Ahmed Haroun, said he had broken out of prison with others 10 days after the start of the conflict.

MKhan said he had sent a request to Sudan’s government, which has a long history of not co-operating with the ICC, to find out the current location of the suspects.

In April, the ICC opened its first trial dealing with Darfur crimes in the case of alleged Janjaweed leader Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman.

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