* U.N. interviews find “clear pattern of ethnic persecution”
* Possible trials for war crimes, crimes against humanity
* AU, South Sudan still have not set up “hybrid court”
NAIROBI, Feb 23 (Reuters) - U.N. investigators said on Friday they had identified more than 40 South Sudanese military officers who may be responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It was a sharp departure from previous U.N. reports that documented crimes but not perpetrators.
Oil-rich South Sudan gained independence from neighbouring Sudan in 2011 but slid into civil war in December 2013. More than 4 million people, a third of the population, have been uprooted by violence.
The investigators from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said their findings are based on interviews with hundreds of witnesses, satellite imagery and nearly 60,000 documents dating to the outbreak of the war.
Their report, released on Friday, makes the case for “individual command responsibility for widespread or systematic attacks on civilians” by senior military officers, including eight lieutenant generals, and by three state governors.
A government spokesman said they were willing to hold people to account for any crimes. “The government will prosecute anyone responsible for any crimes. This is a responsible government,” foreign affairs spokesman Mawien Makol told Reuters.
So far, there have been very few prosecutions of South Sudanese military or government officials for crimes against civilians.
The U.N. report details what it calls “appalling instances of cruelty against civilians who have had their eyes gouged out, their throats slit, or been castrated.” It said such violence occurred during five major battles between government troops and rebels in 2016 and 2017.
The report contains testimony from a mother who witnessed her son forced to rape his grandmother while his family was held hostage, and an 85-year-old woman who said she was gang-raped before watching the execution of her husband and son.
It also documents what commission member Andrew Clapham called “a clear pattern of ethnic persecution, for the most part by government forces who should be pursued for crimes against humanity”.
The conflict has pitted President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s ethnic Dinka community, to which most of his army commanders belong, against Nuer rebels under his ex-deputy Riek Machar.
Whether the investigators’ evidence will result in prosecutions depends on the African Union.
Under a 2015 peace deal that fell apart in 2016, the AU and South Sudan were supposed to set up a “hybrid court”, consisting of South Sudanese and other African judges, to try atrocities.
A year ago, the U.N. commission said the AU was making itself complicit in South Sudan’s bloodshed by failing to set up the court. It called again on Friday for the court to be established.
“The court could be set up straight away and the prosecutor could begin working on indictments,” said commission chief Yasmin Sooka. “Under the peace agreement those indicted can no longer hold or stand for office.”
Elections are due this year, according to the 2015 peace pact. But governments, including the United States, are trying - so far to no avail - to get the warring sides to observe a ceasefire before any vote is held. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)