U.N. Reports Thousands Dead in South Sudan, Mass Graves Found

80,000 Displaced Amid Fears Violence Will Become Ethnically Charged

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Update, 4:12 p.m. ET: United States Secretary of State John Kerry called South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar Tuesday morning urging them to “accept a cessation of hostilities and begin mediated political talks,” the State Department said Tuesday.

Update, 3:13 p.m. ET: The United Nations voted Tuesday to temporarily increase its peacekeeping force in South Sudan to 12,500 soldiers from the current 6,500, the Associated Press reports.

Thousands have been killed in South Sudan over the course of the last week according to U.N. officials, as ethnically-charged clashes have plunged the fledgling nation into chaos.

“When I’ve looked at the hospitals in key towns and I’ve looked at the hospitals in the capital itself, the range of injuries, this is no longer a situation where we can merely say it’s hundreds of people who’ve lost their lives,” U.N. humanitarian co-coordinator Toby Lanzer told the BBC. The U.N. says at least 80,000 people have been displaced as a result of the violence.

The U.N. Human Rights Office also said staffers found a mass grave Monday near Bentiu, containing the bodies of 14 ethnic Dinka. 20 more bodies were found in a river nearby, the AP reports.

Two other mass graves were also found in a different town.

While the bodies have not been definitively identified, Spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said that the victims were likely part of the People’s Liberation Army, headed by President Salva Kiir.

The bodies are those of soldiers from Kiir’s ethnic Dinka group that was reported to the U.N. as “unaccounted for and feared dead.”

The violence over the last ten days was sparked after Kiir fired his vice president, Riek Machar, who is of Nuer ethnicity and a prominent political rival. Fighters loyal to Machar have battled with state forces, which caused Kiir to publicly accuse Machar of trying to overthrow the government.

Machar denies he is trying to seize power, but says he wants Kiir to step down. “We want a democratic nation,” he told Radio France Internationale, “We want democratic free and fair elections. We want Salva Kiir to call it a day.”

South Sudan, which won independence from Sudan to the north just two years ago, has struggled to find stability in its freedom, not least because of the dizzying array of ethnic and tribal groups within its borders. Machar’s Nuer tribe is the second largest after Kiir’s Dinka.