At least 105 people have died in violence between government forces and rebel militias in Southern Sudan this week, an official said, raising concerns of southern instability ahead of the region’s independence declaration in July.
Brig. Malaak Ayuen, the head of the Southern Sudan’s Army Information Department, said Sunday that fighting on Saturday between a group of rebels led by Maj. Gen. Gabriel Tanginye in Jonglei state and southern government forces led to 57 people being killed and scores being injured.
Ayuen said that five days of fighting between government forces and those loyal to another rebel chief, Peter Gatdet, in Unity state which is northwest of Jonglei, led to the deaths of 48 people. He did not give a breakdown of the number of civilians, rebels and the army killed in both incidents.
Since its January independence referendum, Southern Sudan has seen a wave of violence that has killed hundreds.
The south voted nearly unanimously to secede from the north, but there are many issues that still remain unaddressed including the sharing of oil revenues, the status of southerner and northerner minorities living on both sides of the border, and who controls the disputed border region of Abyei, a fertile area near large oil fields.
Southern officials now claim the militia groups they are fighting are being funded by the north to cause instability with the goal of taking over the oil fields in the south.
Before this week’s violence the U.N. said that at least 800 people had been killed and 94,000 displaced because of violence in Southern Sudan this year.
The fresh clashes between Tanginye’s forces and the army erupted on Saturday morning in Kaldak village north of Jonglei state, where his forces have been assembled for reintegration into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, poised to become Southern Sudan’s regular force in July.
Tanginye said his base was attacked by the southern army because he refused to disarm his men ahead of the reintegration process, an allegation the army has dismissed as a “lie”.
Tanginye was a Khartoum-sponsored warlord who burned and looted southern villages along the Nile River during the decades-long north-south civil war. He continued serving for the north after a 2005 peace deal ended the war. Although he accepted an amnesty and reintegration package with the southern army late last year, it is now unclear which side Tanginye is fighting for.
The fighting in Unity state erupted on Tuesday and continued until Saturday, with both the army and the rebels claiming control of Mankien village in Mayom County, where the fighting was concentrated.
The army field commander in Mayom, Brig. Peter Makal said on Saturday that his forces defeated the rebels. He accused them of being funded by the north to invade the area with an aim of taking over Mayom’s oil fields.
However, a spokesman for the rebels, Bol Gatkuoth, claimed they tactfully retreated to regroup for a fresh attack aimed at reaching the state capital, Bentiu, which lies further south.
Nearly 4,000 civilians in the area have fled their devastated villages for safety, Charles Machieng, Mayom’s County Commissioner said on Saturday.
“The whole town was burnt down. There was no single structure remaining because people are using houses made from grass,” Machieng said. “There is still fear in the entire community because they heard heavy artillery fire, they have seen heavy fighting.”
The state authorities responded by ordering the northern and foreign employees of the oil companies working in the state to evacuate.
Southern Sudan’s referendum was part of a 2005 peace deal ending a two-decade civil war that cost some 2 million lives.