A brutal civil war that has been ravaging South Sudan for the past three years has now reached the the southern town of Yei, considered one of the safest place in the war-torn country. At least 150,000 of civilians have fled the town to escape extrajudicial killings, rapes and kidnappings.

South Sudan became the world's newest nation when it declared independence from Sudan in 2011. However, the country descended into civil war in 2013 when President Salva Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, fired his deputy , and rebel leader, Riek Machar – from the Nuer group – and his cabinet.

Ethnic-related violence spread, with militia groups carrying out attacks in villages and areas known to be inhabited by either the Dinka or Nuer tribes. An estimated 50,000 people have been killed.

The conflict, originally concentrated in and around the capital Juba, later spread to other areas in the country.

Yei had been spared from violence until government troops from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) entered the town in August. Soldiers were looking for rebels , members of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO).

It is believed at least 150,000 people are trapped in Yei, while another 150,000 have fled to Uganda, which is hosting hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed government and rebel forces in and around Yei have committed "serious abuses against civilians" in recent months.

One of the civilians interviewed by the rights group said unidentified attackers entered a house and killed a mother and her 4-year-old daughter with machetes, then dumped their bodies in a river.

South Sudan conflict
Soldiers of the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) sit in a pick-up truck at the military base in Malakal, northern South Sudan Albert Gonzalez Farran/ AFP

War, famine and abuses

Latest estimates suggest at least 4.6 million people across the country are facing hunger, amid fears food crisis might deepen as the conflict has now spilled into the Equatoria region – where Yei is located – considered one of South Sudan's breadbaskets.

Both warring sides have been accused of committing crimes against humanity including rape, torture and the use of child soldiers.

A recent UN probe concluded its mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) failed to protect civilians in July due to "a lack of leadership on the part of key senior mission personnel".

The probe resulted in the sacking of Unmiss chief, a move than angered Kenya, which decided to withdraw its troops from the UN peacekeeping mission. Earlier in November, the US announced it would support a UN-proposed arms embargo in South Sudan, something Russia opposed to.