South Sudan militia head ‘surrenders’, toll soars

2011-04-25 11:37

A top militia leader has surrendered in south Sudan after clashes that killed more than 160 people, the army said today, as the soon to be independent nation reels from a string of bloody battles.

The deaths over the past week have come in fighting between the south’s army and two separate militia groups, pushing the number of those killed to almost 1?000 dead since January and prompting president Salva Kiir to renew his call for reconciliation.

“Gabriel Tang and around 1 300 of his men surrendered peacefully on Sunday,” said Malaak Ayuen, spokesperson for the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

“They have been received in a friendly way and are being treated with respect.”

On Saturday, 57 gunmen led by Tang in northern Jonglei state were killed in a shoot-out with SPLA troops, before fleeing into the surrounding bush, Ayuen said.

Seven SPLA soldiers were also killed in the battle, he added, while over 70 wounded soldiers and civilians were reported to be receiving treatment in hospital.

Tang commanded a pro-Khartoum militia during Sudan’s devastating 1983-2005 civil war between the north and the south, in which about two million people died, but he agreed to join the southern army late last year.

Saturday’s fighting broke out after arguments over the militia’s formal integration, with troops reluctant to relocate to the southern capital Juba, Ayuen said.

“Tensions were very high, but no one intended to fight,” said Ayuen, who said the surrendered forces would still join the army.

“It has been regretted by all, because the forces were actually joining the SPLA.”

Last week, four days of clashes between the army and rebels led by former southern general Peter Gadet in key oil-producing Unity state left “at least a hundred dead,” according to the SPLA spokesperson.

“There were three significant clashes with heavy fighting but the rebels have now retreated,” Ayuen said.

However, rebels have said they are preparing fresh attacks in the region, close to the still disputed north-south border.

The violence also forced the evacuation of 130 northern oil industry workers back to the north.

Local officials have said almost 4?000 civilians fled the fighting in Unity state, adding to the 94 000 already forced from their homes since January because of violence across the south, according to UN estimates.

At least seven militia groups, including Tang’s, have been battling the southern government since January, when southerners voted overwhelmingly to split with the north in a largely peaceful referendum.

Southern president Kiir, in an Easter message read by a representative in church yesterday, repeated his willingness for reconciliation if the rebels surrendered.

“My fellow brothers and sisters who may have taken up arms for one reason or another, our hearts remain widely open to those willing to lay down their arms and reconcile,” his message read.

Kiir said the safety of the people was the “priority of the government”.

In addition to the army-militia fighting, the south is also struggling with local clashes between rival ethnic groups over livestock and land, as well as intermittent raids in the west by rebels of the originally Ugandan-based Lord’s Resistance Army.

In a separate incident in the south’s troubled Jonglei state, the UN’s World Food Programme said a Sudanese staffer was killed in an ambush on Friday in the Duk Payuel area, when gunmen attacked his vehicle.

Fighting in the south is raising concerns for the plight of civilians as the region gears up for independence, with human rights campaigners warning that they have borne the brunt of attacks.

The rebels have accused the southern government of suppressing opposition and of rampant corruption, rejecting amnesty offers.

But the rebels also struggle to explain how their violent offensives provide any credible solution for the future of their fledgling nation.

Critics argue they are jostling for power ahead of independence, rebelling in order to extract cash or power from the government.

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