Fighting broke out between two rebel groups in South Sudan’s southern Equatoria region, a rebel official said, adding another dimension to an increasingly fragmented conflict that has spawned many armed factions.
The incident on Sunday in Nyori in Central Equatoria state pitted rebel leader Riek Machar’s SPLA-IO fighters against the National Salvation Front (NAS) led by General Thomas Cirillo, who formed his own faction after leaving government in February, vowing to overthrow President Salva Kiir.
South Sudan’s war has largely been fought between the forces of Kiir, a Dinka, and the SPLA-IO of former vice president Machar, a Nuer. Fighting has often been along ethnic lines.
SPLA-IO spokesman Lam Paul Gabriel told Reuters Cirillo’s forces attacked an SPLA-IO reconnaissance team travelling near the base of a NAS general, John Kenyi Loburon, but were repulsed.
Loburon is a leading general in Central Equatoria who has battled Kiir’s forces for years. On Friday he defected from Machar’s side to join NAS. Fighting at Nyori is the first confirmed clash involving NAS.
“The team went inside his base and we cleared him and we flushed him out of his base and he is on the run at the moment,” Gabriel said of Loburon. Two of Loburon’s soldiers were wounded and 30 surrendered, he said.
Loburon is the latest of numerous SPLA-IO generals to defect to NAS, with many complaining of lack of logistic support from Machar and favouritism towards ethnic Nuer fighters.
NAS accused SPLA-IO fighters of Nuer ethnicity of carrying out a “planned attack” on Loburon’s base.
“Loburon’s force repulsed the attack twice and is pursuing the remaining attackers,” the group said in a statement sent to Reuters via WhatsApp.
SPLA-IO spokesman Gabriel denied the reconnaissance team was only Nuer, saying it was a unit comprising different ethnicities under command of a local Equatorian brigadier.