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JUBA (Reuters) - The South Sudanese military has launched a rare investigation into allegations that soldiers gang-raped villagers, a bishop told Reuters on Sunday, after a week of high-level army resignations by officers citing rampant abuse.
Anglican Bishop Paul Yogusuk said that soldiers had attacked at least five women and girls in Kubi village, about 15 kilometres southwest of the capital Juba, a week ago following a deadly ambush on a military convoy in the area.
The ministry of defence had sent a senior officer to investigate the rape allegations, he said.
"This is a test case for the army, to see if they are serious about justice," said Yogusuk. "The army has taken measures to investigate ... they sent a brigadier general."
South Sudan has been mired in civil war since President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, in 2013. The fighting has forced more than 3 million people from their homes and has increasingly followed ethnic lines, leading the United Nations to warn of potential genocide.
Three high-ranking military officers and a minister resigned recently, citing rampant brutal human rights abuses by the military and ethnic favouritism that granted Dinka officers impunity.
Two of the officers oversaw the military courts system and said in their resignation letters that interference from senior Dinka officers left them unable to hold soldiers to account for abuses.
Referring to the latest claims, Yogusuk said the soldiers beat and raped villagers from Kubi and locked the men in a small metal shed without food for two days.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang said he was preparing a statement but was unable to comment on the latest allegations.
The military has previously said that it weeds out soldiers who commit abuses, but has provided little evidence to prove it. The U.N. has documented hundreds of rapes involving soldiers in the capital alone but investigations by the authorities are rare.
Yogusuk said the attack left five women needing hospital treatment, including two girls aged 12 and 13.
"They were raped by many soldiers, not just one," he said.
Resident Wani Mosa Ladu, 23, told Reuters by phone that soldiers arrived in the morning of Feb. 12 as people were preparing to go to market.
"The soldiers begin beating us, asking us to show them who was shooting people along the highway road. The soldiers consider us rebels," he said.
"Our mothers all disappeared ... some them were raped. Our property was taken from our homes, every door was broken."
Village chief Philip Ladu Samuel said he was beaten and detained along with 46 other men.
"The whole area was looted and destroyed," he said.
Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Andrew Bolton