A South Sudanese military commander said he defected with no fewer than 200 soldiers to the country’s largest rebel group, amid a showdown between President Salva Kiir and his former military chief.
Lt.-Col. Chan Garang, an ally of former army chief, Paul Malong, said he defected to join the largest rebel group fighting Kiir.
All three men are ethnic Dinkas and any split within the powerful group could represent a threat to Kiir.
The four-year civil war has split the country into a patchwork of fiefdoms, created Africa’s biggest refugee crisis in two decades and led to ethnic cleansing.
UN says a third of the 12 million-strong population has fled their homes and half are dependent on food aid.
In May, Kiir fired Malong, whom UN investigators accused of directing ethnic militias responsible for the rape, torture and murder of civilians.
Malong, who is also on a U.S. sanctions list, briefly fled north but returned to the capital, where he has been under house arrest ever since.
Over the weekend, Kiir’s troops surrounded Malong’s house in Juba and unsuccessfully attempted to disarm his bodyguards. An armed standoff continues outside his house.
Garang is the first Malong loyalist to join the rebels.
Garang said he defected because allies of Malong’s were being badly treated, troops had not been paid for seven months and other tribes were being discriminated against.
“I left Juba because when are you are a supporter of Paul Malong, you will be arrested,” Garang said.
“We are preparing our army so that we can launch an attack on Juba. Salva Kiir divided the tribes so we need him to go.”
Garang said that he took more than 200 soldiers with him, although a rebel press release put the number at 150.
A photo provided by the rebels showed more than 30 armed men but their identities were unclear.
Army spokesman, Lul Koang, said they were not aware of any defection from their ranks.
Malong was unreachable by phone, but his wife Lucy Ayak distanced her husband from the defected commander.
“[Garang] is not happy with the government and he has deserted. Why is he saying it is the issue of Gen. Malong?” she asked.
South Sudan’s war began in December 2013 between troops loyal to Kiir and rebels of former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer.
Oyet Nathaniel, a senior rebel official, said that Garang had brought 150 men with him and that anyone deciding to join them against Kiir is a “welcome development,” regardless of their background.
There are several rebel groups, but none of them is well-funded or well-armed.