South Sudan’s military forces killed the country’s highest-profile rebel leader, a man who posed a significant security threat to peace inside the world’s newest country, an official said.
Rebel leader George Athor was a former lieutenant general in South Sudan’s military during the 1983 to 2005 civil war with Sudan. However, Athor launched a rebellion after losing an election for governor of Jonglei state in April last year, a vote he maintained was rigged.
Troops loyal to Athor fought repeatedly with South Sudanese forces over the last year, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
South Sudanese officials on Tuesday leveled serious charges against Athor, saying he had been making contacts with the region’s most insidious rebel group — the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) — and that officials in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, had been financing him.
South Sudan has repeatedly accused its northern neighbor, Sudan, of providing support and assistance to Athor and other rebel groups. Sudan has denied those accusations.
South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar, in announcing Athor’s death on Tuesday, said Athor had been in Rwanda, the Congo and Uganda recently in a drive to recruit fighters.
Colonel Philip Aguer, South Sudan’s military spokesman, said Athor was making militant contacts in preparation for a Christmastime attack.
Aguer said one South Sudanese soldier and one of Athor’s men were also killed during the exchange on Monday evening.
Aguer said Athor’s death was a major victory for the people of South Sudan which “has deprived Khartoum of an important tool.”
Athor was the last major rebel leader still active in South Sudan.
South Sudan has tried repeatedly to broker peace with Athor. During South Sudan’s independence ceremony from Sudan in July, President Salva Kiir offered amnesty to all rebels fighting in the country, including Athor.
Machar said on Tuesday that the deal still stands.
“I call on all who rebelled against the government to lay down their arms and join the process of peace and development,’’ he said.
Athor’s death will likely be seen as a victory for South Sudan, which has been plagued by rebel movements for years.