24 killed in South Sudan clashes

Juba - Fighting between South Sudan's army and a militia led by a self-proclaimed prophet killed 24 people in an eastern region where France's Total and other foreign oil groups are hoping to explore large concessions, the military said.

The army said it attacked the fighters led by Dak Kueth on Monday as part of a campaign to quell ethnic militia in the remote Jonglei state.

South Sudan won independence from Sudan last year but its government has struggled to assert control over vast territories still swamped with weapons after decades of fighting.

In Jonglei, a cycle of revenge killings between the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes, often provoked by cattle raids, and a heavy-handed government campaign to disarm locals have hit hopes that independence would bring peace.

"We realised that Dak Kueth was mobilising Lou Nuer youth to go and attack the Murle in Akobo. We decided to preempt this action," Lieutenant General Kuol Deim Kuol told Reuters.

The fighting killed 19 militia fighters and five soldiers, he said.

Human rights groups accused the army of committing abuses including rape and torture during its disarmament campaign in the area early this year. The army denies the charges.

Nearly 900 people died when about 7 000 armed Lou Nuer youths attacked Murle villages in Jonglei's Pibor area at the end of last year, according to the United Nations.

The army is also fighting a separate rebel group in Jonglei led by David Yau Yau, a former theology student.

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