JUBA (Reuters) - South Sudan has arrested four soldiers after residents accused the army of beating and raping civilians in a small village near the capital last month, a military spokesman said on Friday, in a case that became a symbol of spiralling military abuses.
The military launched an investigation after a local bishop brought five victims, including young girls, from Kubi village for medical treatment in the capital.
Three men will be charged with rape and one with dereliction of duty after a fourth suspect escaped, said Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang.
"It is a crime to commit a rape; they have done it and they will be held accountable," he said. The men's trial will be open to the media, he said.
South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, plunged into civil war in 2013 after President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy, Riek Machar, a Nuer.
Fighting since then has fractured the country along ethnic lines and atrocities have become so common that the U.N. has warned the conflict may degenerate into genocide.
More than 3 million people have fled their homes out of a population of 11 million. Hunger is widespread and parts of the oil-producing country are ravaged by famine.
The U.N. has documented hundreds of rapes in the capital alone, and warns that both the military and the rebels appear to have inflicted horrific sexual violence on women based on their ethnicity.
Rights groups have accused military leaders of ignoring or condoning widespread sexual violence as part of a strategy of ethnic cleansing, but Koang said military commanders could not be held accountable for failing to stop the Kubi rapes.
"The SPLA as an institution doesn’t take responsibility for individual crimes committed by soldiers especially when they know it’s a crime," Koang said, using the acronym for the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
Last month President Kiir said soldiers who rape should be shot.
Koang said the military wanted to actively pursue rapists.
"We are treating things differently. This is the first arrest for 2017; we had (arrests) for 2016 on the issue of Terrain hotel," he said, referring to an incident in the capital where rampaging soldiers robbed and gangraped international aid workers and shot dead a South Sudanese man.
Hundreds of documented rapes remain uninvestigated and unsolved. Last month, the head of the military courts and the director of military justice both resigned. They said soldiers frequently robbed, raped and murdered civilians but ethnic favouritism by the president made it impossible for them to hold soldiers to account.
writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Dominic Evans