LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sudanese government forces are gang raping teenage girls and women in government-held areas of Blue Nile state in a pattern of terror against civilians, a rights group said on Monday.
"Entire communities are trapped in camp-like conditions behind government lines, terrorised by government forces," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Researchers said refugees interviewed in South Sudan last month described widespread abuses, including rapes, beatings, torture and cases in which men were beaten to death in custody.
Khartoum has been fighting an insurgency in the southern provinces of Blue Nile and South Kordofan since 2011, mounted mostly by former civil war fighters who were left in Sudan after South Sudan seceded that year.
"The number of rapes reported to us, often in harrowing detail, suggests that sexual violence is part of the government's counter-insurgency strategy," Bekele said.
"The scale of reported abuses points to the urgent need for an international investigation in both rebel- and government-controlled areas."
Almost half the refugees said they, a family member or neighbour had suffered sexual violence or they had witnessed a sexual assault. Some also reported that young women had been forced into marriages with members of the military or militia.
HRW said Hawa, a 20-year-old woman, had spent 10 days in hospital after soldiers gang-raped her in an attack this year which left her unconscious.
"They raped me one after the other and they beat me," Hawa said. "I tried to resist and they pulled me to the ground and (when they were finished) they left me."
A 14-year-old girl, Amira, told how soldiers had taken her, her sister and mother to a military barracks and raped them.
Several relatives of victims said they were beaten up, threatened or turned away when they tried to report the rapes.
Human rights groups have accused the Sudanese military of indiscriminate air bombardments against civilians in rebel-held areas, but HRW says there has been little information so far about conditions in government-held areas.
HRW researchers interviewed 42 refugees who had fled into South Sudan and six people displaced within Blue Nile state.
The majority were Ingessana, the ethnic group of Malik Agar, head of the rebel SPLM-N which is fighting the government.
Several men who had been detained described severe beatings and torture. One farmer who was held with 13 others said two of them had died from beatings.
The refugees attributed most of the abuses to Sudanese forces, including the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) which has also been accused of attacking civilians in Darfur and Southern Kordofan. They also said they had been attacked by militia drawn from the Fellata, a nomadic ethnic group.
HRW called on the U.N. Security Council to launch an inquiry and impose an arms embargo against the government.
A spokesman at the Sudanese Embassy in London cast doubt on the allegations. "We have every reason to question the veracity of this. Those sympathetic to the rebels will of course want to discredit the Sudanese government."
(Editing by Ros Russell)