KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A renegade commander in South Sudan’s army said on Friday government troops had clashed with soldiers loyal to him, leaving 53 dead and ending hopes of a negotiated end to his mini revolt.
General George Athor and a small contingent of troops rebelled in protest at the outcome of elections in April in which Athor stood. He was defeated by a candidate belonging to the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) of South Sudan President Salva Kiir.
Athor said he had been talking with Kiir directly over the voting issue and an incident when some of his troops were involved in a firefight at an army base on April 30 which killed eight soldiers.
“I don’t think that we can talk to him again,” Athor said. “We have decided there is no negotiations anymore.”
“The forces of Salva Kiir came and attacked us in Colliet yesterday,” Athor told Reuters from the remote Jonglei state, where France’s Total holds a largely unexplored oil concession.
“The enemy sustained heavy casualties — now we have found the bodies of 50 ... we have three dead.”
Athor was an independent candidate for governor of Jonglei state. He and other independent candidates have accused Kiir’s ruling party of fraud and rigging the vote in the oil-producing south. He wants an amnesty for his soldiers and the Jonglei governor-elect to be removed.
South Sudan’s army (SPLA) said Athor had sent out a reconnaissance unit which had run into government troops.
“Only one soldier was injured from the SPLA,” said spokesman Malaak Ayuen Ajok. “The SPLA were not given any orders to attack Athor.”
He said some troops had pursued Athor’s soldiers and had not yet reported back.
Military splits in the semi-autonomous South Sudan region, emerging from decades of north-south civil war that has claimed some 2 million lives, are worrying ahead of a referendum for the south in eight months time to decide whether to become Africa’s newest nation state.
Athor warned he would now attack the southern army.
Much of east Africa was destabilized by the north-south war and some analysts fear a heavily armed population and tribal and political rivalries in the south could lead to an unstable state after the plebiscite in January 2011. The vote is widely thought to likely end in secession from Sudan.
The South Sudan army puts Athor’s troop numbers at about 100 men. Athor has not said how many soldiers support him.
South Sudan’s army is separate from the north under a 2005 north-south peace deal which ended Africa’s longest civil war.
Editing by Matthew Jones