South Sudan President Salva Kiir ordered that soldiers who rape civilians be shot, trying to mollify citizens outraged by abuses by security forces and quell growing international anger over attacks.
South Sudan was plunged into a sporadic civil war in 2013 when President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer. Rights groups and UN monitors say soldiers have gang-raped women based on their ethnicity. A few rapes by rebels have also been reported.
The reports of sexual violence, committed with impunity, raised tensions between the South Sudanese government and Western donors, who bankroll most of the country's health and education needs and largely fund a 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force that costs around $1 billion dollars a year.
"Those who are doing unlawful acts, raping women and girls, this is not the policy of the government ... the body of a woman cannot be taken by force," Kiir said in a speech given during a visit to the town of Yei.
The area around the former business hub, near the Ugandan border, saw fierce fighting last year and is now home to a large contingent of soldiers.
"I want the general chief of staff General Paul Malong and the defence minister to report to me from now on if anything like this (rape) happens. In such a case, we will shoot the person who did it," Kiir said.
“One of our laws during the struggle was that, if a soldier rapes a woman or a girl… that soldier was immediately condemned to execution by firing squad,” he said.
In December, the United Nations warned that the simmering ethnic violence was at risk of exploding into genocide.
The conflict has already forced more than 3 million people to flee their homes, and many women report being targeted by soldiers when they leave UN-protected camps to search for firewood or food.
Kiir's speech hinted that one reason the government had failed to crack down on abuses by soldiers was fear of international criticism.
"There are people among you will go to the United Nations and report that we are killing people," he said.
South Sudanese military spokesman Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang said he was aware of a case in September where a major was dismissed and jailed for 14 years for the rape of a teenager girl in the capital.
Kiir's visit to Yei was his first since the South Sudan became an independent country from Sudan in 2011, following Africa's longest-running civil war.
The visit is part of a government-backed "National Dialogue" that aims to win over hostile areas of the country.
Additional reporting by Joseph Oduha (Africa Review)