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South Sudan forces repel attack tied to renegade politician

SHARE South Sudan forces repel attack tied to renegade politician

KAMPALA, Uganda — Hundreds of rebels invaded one of southern Sudan's largest cities Saturday, leaving more than 20 people dead and adding to a litany of security concerns across the region as it prepares for independence.

Rebel forces loyal to a renegade soldier purportedly linked to a southern Sudanese politician attacked the city of Malakal in Upper Nile state, near the border with northern Sudan, around 3 a.m. Saturday, shooting up the market and battling with the southern Sudanese military before being driven out.

"The militia infiltrated the town at night and they started shooting," said Col. Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the southern army.

An ensuing firefight with southern military forces left at least 23 rebels dead and four army soldiers wounded, though civilian casualties were not yet known.

By Saturday evening, fighting appeared to be breaking out again.

The southern army says the militia, known as the Olony-Lam Akol group, is linked to the politician Lam Akol, a former high-ranking officer in the southern army from the ethnic Shilluk group, who was once Sudan's foreign minister and is now chairman of a breakaway faction of the south's governing party.

"They believe that they have to fight with the government of southern Sudan to get what they want, and we don't know what it is they want," said Lam Both, minister of information for Upper Nile state.

Southern Sudanese celebrated across the region in January after approving a referendum on independence from the north, bringing generations of civil war to an end.

Since the vote, though, a troubling picture is being painted of the soon-to-be-country's security.

With vast, empty expanses of land, little infrastructure and tens of thousands of soldiers who were meant to be demobilized but never gave up their guns, clashes and rebellions have broken out across the region, a new one erupting nearly every week, often with a different enemy.

In early February, militias loyal to the rebel general known as Tang fought with southern soldiers near Malakal, killing more than 50 people.

In Jonglei state, near Malakal, clashes with the rebel Gen. George Athor have left hundreds dead.

In Abyei, more than 100 people died in recent clashes, and a village was razed.

On Saturday, a nun in a Catholic church in Malakal described the scene as terrifying. "There is very little movement around town, the market is completely closed, there are many, many soldiers," she said in a telephone interview. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared retribution against her church.

As she spoke, explosions could be heard, and she said shooting had started again in the early evening.

She said the militia had links to the local Shilluk group, one of the largest ethnic groups in southern Sudan, who she said felt marginalized by the southern government, particularly in terms of employment. "Tribal elements," she said, could "explode."

Despite the clashes, Aguer said the region was secure, but that the northern government was trying to destabilize the south, and had been supporting the various militias.

Reuters reported Saturday that the southern Sudanese government had accused the north of plotting to overthrow the southern government and had suspended talks with the north. The south has also started to search for new routes for its valuable oil.