NAIROBI, Kenya — Satellite images from above Sudan have found three excavated sites that eyewitnesses suggest could be mass graves, a watchdog project co-founded by actor and activist George Clooney said Thursday.
The alleged mass burial sites are located on the outskirts of Kadugli, the capital of central Sudan's South Kordofan state. An outburst of conflict there since June 5 has led to allegations that Sudan's Arab government is slaughtering minority Africans aligned with the rival government now running the breakaway nation of South Sudan.
According to Clooney's Satellite Sentinel Project, three eyewitness accounts reported digging and burying at the site on June 8, 12 and 22. The eyewitness on June 8 reported seeing at least 100 dead bodies buried there with the support of individuals dressed as workers from the Sudanese Red Crescent, a medical charity group, and overseen by the Sudanese military.
An aerial image dated July 4 and furnished by DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based provider of satellite pictures, corroborates the accounts "with pictures of three excavated areas consistent with mass graves," said Jonathan Hutson, communications director for the Enough Project, an advocacy group that's a partner of Clooney's satellite initiative.
Rumors of mass graves around Kadugli had been circulating for weeks as tales of government atrocities there leaked out, but they couldn't be independently verified as no journalists have gained access to Kadugli since the fighting began.
Accounts gathered by McClatchy in a rare visit to South Kordofan's Nuba Mountains region this month suggest that the Sudanese government is employing brutal counterinsurgency tactics similar to those it's accused of using in the western Darfur region. Sudanese who fled the fighting described house-to-house searches by Arab militias, helicopter gunships strafing fleeing civilians and heavy aerial bombing campaigns in civilian areas.
If the visible overturned trenches seen in the satellite images are indeed burial sites, it's unclear whether they hold the bodies of civilians, government soldiers killed in battle or both.
Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern about the "new and serious allegations" against Sudanese forces and called for a U.N. monitoring mission in South Kordofan.
Clooney, who's traveled to Sudan to raise awareness about the southern conflict and the separate humanitarian crisis in Darfur, co-founded the satellite project in October with John Prendergast, a longtime Sudan activist. The project combines satellite imagery with eyewitness accounts to try to prevent conflict in the east African nation.
The Sudanese army is fighting against a rebel Nuba force that sided with the southern Sudanese rebel movement during Sudan's long civil war. That war ended in a 2005 peace deal that on July 9 resulted in the separation of the southern region into its own country, South Sudan.
That split so far has remained relatively peaceful, but the secession process sparked renewed hostilities in South Kordofan, where the Nuba fighters are now left to fend for themselves on the northern side of the border. The U.N. said that the Sudanese Red Crescent began collecting dead bodies from the Kadugli area and transferring them to the hospital soon after the fighting began in June.
Representatives from the Sudanese Red Crescent couldn't be reached to comment on the reports that workers in Red Crescent uniforms were participating in mass burials. The organization is part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and a Geneva-based spokesman for the group, Paul Conneally, said that he was still gathering information.
A confidential June 22 U.N. report obtained by McClatchy alleged that Sudanese intelligence agents were "verified" to be masquerading in Red Crescent uniforms to access displaced communities. Conneally said that the federation has found "no concrete evidence" to corroborate the report's claims.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting from Sudan is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011