Around 80 people, including 60 rebels, were killed on Saturday when government forces in the oil-rich South Sudanese Unity state repelled an attack by rebel militia, officials said.
“There was a militia attack at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning (0200-0300 GMT) in Mayom county,” said Unity Information Minister Gideon Gatpan Thoar.
Thoar said rebels, most of them fighting under the banner of the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), attacked Mayom town and that the majority of the civilian casualties were residents gunned down while “running for shelter.”
“We are counting the bodies now but over 60 militias were killed and many more wounded,” said Thoar, adding that 15 civilians were killed in the attack.
Among the dead was the notorious rebel fighter Colonel Ruadheal Gatwech, he said, adding that SPLA government forces also captured one soldier in Mayom town and three more in the east of the county.
“The situation is under control … The rebels are still being chased away,” Thoar told AFP seven hours after the attack.
Officials could not give a precise figure on how many rebels attacked Mayom, but said that they were in the “hundreds” and had come from South Kordofan, a state on Sudan’s new border where conflict between government forces and rebels has flared since June.
“They were organised in South Kordofan. They are South Sudanese supported by Khartoum and trained there”, said Philip Aguer, spokesman for South Sudan’s military.
South Sudan seceded peacefully from the north in July following a referendum called for in a 2005 peace deal that ended a 22-year civil war, and both sides accuse the other of funding rebel groups.
Aguer said 11 civilians were killed and 16 wounded in the fight.
He said another six soldiers and three police were killed.
Thoar said the rebels had not given any motive for the attack but suspected they had come from South Kordofan to help local militias “disrupt the disarmament” in Unity that has collected 1,000 guns, over half of them in Mayom.
Aguer said rebels led by Commander Matthew Pul Jang had come from Sudan to support other militia leaders in South Sudan, and had clashed with SPLA forces Friday in Tor Abith and Tumur.
“In Heglig (a small town in South Kordofan), they were given a lot of land mines on the 26th of this month, and then they started moving immediately” to the south, Aguer said.
Thoar said “it’s obvious it’s from there (South Kordofan). They have a camp in Nyala.”
The troops are thought to support local rebels that make up the South Sudan Liberation Army.
Thoar said the last serious attack in Unity was in early October, when the rebel group was suspected to have laid an anti-tank mine that killed 20 people on a passenger bus, and before that another mine incident in September.
On Friday, the SSLA gave the UN and aid agencies one week to evacuate Unity state, promising to “violently resist the regime of Governor Deng Taban,” who the rebels accuse of human rights abuses.
“SSLA is calling upon all NGOs and UN personnel to leave Unity State within a week for their own safety,” the group said in a statement from their Mayom headquarters.