NAIROBI, Kenya — The townsfolk believed 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 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 country in eastern Africa. Rwanda is marking the 20th anniversary this month of a genocide that killed an estimated 1 million people.
Thousands of people have been killed in violence in South Sudan since December, when presidential guards splintered and fought along ethnic lines. The violence later spread across the country as soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, tried to put down a rebellion led by Riek Machar, the former vice president and an ethnic Nuer.
But Lanzer told the Associated Press 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 Lanzer, who was in Bentiu on Sunday and Monday.
As rebel forces entered Bentiu last week, residents were led to believe that by entering the mosque they would be safe, Lanzer said, citing accounts from survivors.
Then the gunmen killed wantonly, including children and the elderly, said Lanzer, who counted at least 150 bodies.
In New York, a U.N. spokesman said many bodies remain by the side of the main road between Bentiu and Rubkona, another town in Unity state.