By Krista McCarthy
At least nine civilians were killed in clashes between the rebel South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) and the national Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Mayom County, Unity state on Saturday, October 29th. The battle began when the rebel SSLA attacked the town of Mayom at dawn. Colonel Philip Aguer, spokesman for the government forces, said many of the civilians were killed during the SSLA’s initial attack on the town, and were gunned down as they ran for safety. Conflicting reports of the battle have since emerged, with both sides claiming victory.
The South Sudan Liberation Army was formed by George Athor, a former SPLA commander who rebelled against the new government in Juba after he failed to win the nomination for the governor’s seat in the powerful Jonglei state. Athor’s SSLA began by attacking SPLM military barracks and other military installations, but by February 2011 had been accused of killing 200 civilians in attacks in Jonglei. Athor denied that his men were involved in the incident and blamed the deaths on the SPLM.
Two days before the battle in Mayom, the SSLA released a press statement demanding all personnel for non-governmental organizations and UN agencies evacuate the Unity state for their own safety, warning that battles between the SSLA and SPLM were imminent. The press statement accused the SPLM of having the family members of SSLA fighters arrested and causing their divorces by stealing the dowry cattle from their in-laws.
Following Saturday’s battle in Mayom, the SSLA claimed to have won a decisive victory. In a press release sent to the Sudan Tribune on October 29th, the SSLA claimed to have captured the towns of Mayom and Tomor, and killed 700 SPLM soldiers. They reiterated calls for personnel of humanitarian organizations and UN agencies to leave the area for their own safety, a move that could devastate the civilian communities who are dependent on this aid for survival.
Government accounts of the battle in Mayom paint a very different picture. According to the Minister of Information, Gideon Gatpan Thoar, government forces succeeded in driving the SSLA away from Mayom and killed 60 of their rebel fighters. Stability has since returned to the area and UN Mission in Sudan (UNMISS) peacekeepers have been deployed to the Unity state to monitor the situation.
The exact number of civilians killed and wounded has been difficult to ascertain. The first government reports said 11 civilians had been killed and 16 were wounded, but later accounts said only 9 had been confirmed dead, while two others were still missing. The SPLM has accused the SSLA of killing and wounding the civilians by firing indiscriminately during their failed attempt to capture Mayom.
South Sudan has also accused neighboring Sudan of supporting the SSLA by supplying them with weapons. Michael Mach, the director of South Sudan’s military intelligence agency, announced that a helicopter owned by Sudan Airways had been captured as it was shipping weapons to the SSLA. Defected SSLA soldiers who have accepted amnesty have also reported that their operations had been supported by Sudan.
The SSLA remains a substantial threat to the security and stability of the world’s newest nation, as it struggles to develop state institutions and build modern infrastructure.