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Fighting Reported in South Sudan Ahead of Former Rebel Leader's Return

Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang, the Sudan People's Liberation Army spokesman, is seen outside Juba, South Sudan, April 14, 2016.
Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang, the Sudan People's Liberation Army spokesman, is seen outside Juba, South Sudan, April 14, 2016.

Fresh clashes are being reported between government and opposition forces in South Sudan, just ahead of the expected arrival of former rebel leader Riek Machar in Juba.

A spokesman for the SPLA-In-Opposition (SPLA IO) said government forces attacked its bases in Unity state’s Rubkona County. The government acknowledged that fighting took place but blamed the rebels for the clashes.

SPLA IO deputy spokesman Major Dickson Gatluak said government troops attacked the rebel-held area Wednesday and Thursday.

"The government has launched offenses in our defensive position in Rubkona County in a certain area called Turkei," Gatluak said. "They also attacked our defense position in Waak and several areas around the northern part of Unity state."

Gatluak said the government and its allied militias had repeatedly violated the cease-fire stipulated in the August peace agreement.

Army spokesman Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang acknowledged the two sides exchanged fire, but said the government was performing what he called its "usual role" of protecting people and their property.

"Some elements from [SPLA] IO went to loot some cattle from a nearby cattle camp at a place called Wicok," he said. "They attacked some cattle owners and they stole some cattle. What we did was respond to the threat. ... We went to the defense of the civilians. That is how it all started."

Koang alleged that rebels stole an unknown number of cattle from the area.

Both Koang and Gatluak said both sides suffered losses, but neither disclosed the number of causalities.

Land-grabbing accusations

Gatluak said government forces were simply trying to grab more land before the peace deal is implemented.

"They are trying to push out our forces from the assembling points, which is unacceptable," he said. "But our forces managed to repulse them back from Wancien where they came from, and also the reinforcement that came out from Bentiu town — we also managed to repulse them back. We really condemn this, because this is one of the stumbling blocks towards the implementation of peace."

The Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission has reported violations of the permanent cease-fire by both sides since the peace agreement was signed by the leaders of both sides in August 2015.

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war. War erupted anew in December 2013, however, after President Salva Kiir’s dismissal of his then-deputy, Machar.

Machar, the first vice president-designate, fled South Sudan after being accused by Kiir of plotting a coup. He is due to arrive in the capital, Juba, on Monday.