* Residents flee to U.N. peacekeeping base
* Firefight between soldiers and ex-rebel commander
* South Sudan full of weapons after decades of war
By Hereward Holland
JUBA, Jan 28 Two thousand people were forced to
flee to a U.N. base after a battle between South Sudanese
soldiers and the guards of a former rebel commander laid waste
to a small town, the United Nations and witnesses said on
South Sudan won independence from Sudan in 2011 but the
government has been struggling to assert control over an
impoverished country the size of France that is full of weapons
after decades of civil war with the north.
The latest fighting took place on Sunday in the small town
of Pibor in the eastern state of Jonglei, between soldiers and
bodyguards of former rebel commander James Kuberin, witnesses
Kuberin used to be a commander of a group led by David Yau
Yau, one of several militias fighting the government of the new
African republic, but he defected to the army in December.
Witnesses said Kuberin went to Pibor's market to get a
haircut and was told by an army patrol not to walk around with
Witness Peter Gazulu said one of the soldiers had a hand
grenade. "Somebody tried to take it and they wrestled with it
and it exploded. The guy died. Then the other men opened fire on
the bodyguards and they escaped," he told Reuters by telephone.
"The army fired all over the place and burned half of Pibor
town, particularly in the south. They were firing at civilians,"
he said. "In a house the father of my friend was burned alive.
The body is still there." Several people had been injured, he
About two thousand people fled the town, mainly made up of
thatched houses, to seek protection at a U.N. peacekeeping base,
U.N. spokesman Kouider Zerrouk said.
Army spokesman Philip Aguer said one soldier had been killed
in the battle, and that Kuberin had fled with his guards
afterwards. He declined to say whether the army had fired on
Medical organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres, one of few
charities operating in Jonglei, said it had treated four people
for gunshot wounds.
South Sudan's civil war with Sudan ended with a 2005 peace
deal which paved the way for secession. Rebel and inter-ethnic
violence is hindering government plans to explore a vast oil
concession block with the help of French firm Total.
In Jonglei, there has been a cycle of revenge killings
between the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes, often provoked by cattle
raids. More than 1,500 people have been killed in the clashes
since South Sudan's independence, according to the United
Human rights groups accuse the army of serious abuses
against civilians, including simulated drownings and rape,
during a disarmament process aimed at ending the inter-ethnic
A radio station with links to Yau Yau's group said the
rebels were fighting the government because of the alleged
abuses during the disarmament programme.
South Sudan accuses Sudan of supplying Yau Yau's rebels with
weapons, an allegation denied by Khartoum.
(Reporting by Hereward Holland; Editing by Ulf Laessing and