JUBA - Thousands of South Sudanese have been killed in over a week of violence with reports of bodies piled in mass graves, the UN said Tuesday, as the Security Council agreed to nearly double its peacekeepers in the young nation threatening to slide into civil war.
The top UN humanitarian chief in the country Toby Lanzer said Tuesday there was "absolutely no doubt in my mind that we're into the thousands" of dead, the first clear indication of the scale of the conflict engulfing South Sudan, which won independence from Sudan to much fanfare just two years ago.
However, the government also celebrated Tuesday the important and strategic recapture of the key town of Bor after a nearly week-long rebel occupation, although large areas of the country remain out of their control.
Earlier, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said a mass grave had been found in the rebel-held town of Bentiu, while there were "reportedly at least two other mass graves" in the capital Juba.
The grim discovery follows escalating battles between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those backing his rival Riek Machar, a former vice president who was sacked in July.
The official toll nationwide has stood at 500 dead for days, although aid workers have said the toll was likely to be far higher.
Witnesses that AFP has spoken to recount a wave of atrocities, including an orchestrated campaign of ethnic mass killings and rape.
In a Christmas message to the people, Kiir said that "innocent people have been wantonly killed", warning that the violence risked spiralling out of control.
"There are now people who are targeting others because of their tribal affiliation... It will only lead to one thing and that is to turn this new nation into chaos," Kiir said in a statement.