Intense fighting broke out in South Sudan on Wednesday and Thursday, killing over 100 people, according to various news reports. The clashes took place between the southern army and renegade general George Athor’s forces, signaling an end to a ceasefire agreement that was signed between the two parties in early January. Coming just days after the official announcement of South Sudan’s overwhelming vote for secession, this most recent violence is an example of just one of the many challenges the new state will face going forward.
Why fighting has resumed between Athor’s men and the SPLA remains unclear, although southern representatives have long pointed a finger North, accusing the Sudanese government of continuing its wartime strategy of supporting southern militias to destabilize the South. Last September, the SPLA seized a helicopter that they claimed had flown from Khartoum to deliver supplies to Athor. Southern officials also said they discovered some of Athor’s men on board.
Whether the SPLA or Athor’s forces initiated the fighting is also unclear, with spokespeople for both sides accusing the other of launching the attack. Clashes took place in Fangak county, in the northwest corner of Jonglei state, where Athor has been operating since last May. According to media reports, Athor’s forces occupied Fangak on Wednesday, but by Thursday the SPLA had reclaimed the area. Fighting subsided today, but the situation remains fragile and unsettled.
Athor, formerly a high-ranking SPLA official, launched a rebellion following the April 2010 elections, during which he was a contender for—and lost—the Jonglei state governor’s seat. Following an offer of amnesty from South Sudanese President Kiir, Athor entered into negotiations with the South Sudanese government in October to settle the terms for reconciliation. Failure to reach an agreement in October led to renewed talks in December, during which time fighting broke out again between the SPLA and Athor’s men. A hasty ceasefire agreement was signed just days before the January 9 referendum.
The so-called permanent ceasefire agreement designated ceasefire zones and laid out a timeline for Athor’s troops to assemble and begin to integrate into the southern army. Notably, the sensitive issue of what rank Athor and his men would receive upon integration was not laid out in the agreement.
Representatives for both the SPLA and Athor have claimed they remain committed to a peaceful settlement. The scale of this bout of fighting, though—as well as last week’s fighting in Malakal which was initiated by yet another southern militia—is a reminder that reconciliation in the South is far from complete and will remain a tough, but immediate task for the South Sudanese government.
Photo: SPLA (IRIN)