South Sudan’s army has overrun three rebel-held towns over the last week, forcing at least hundreds of civilians to flee to Uganda, following infighting between rebel groups in the country’s restive Equatoria region.
Government troops, who were based in Kajo Keji town in the county’s east, first attacked Bori, the site of a rebel barracks, before continuing to Sokare and Mangalatore over the weekend, according to Anglican Bishop Joseph Aba, who hails from Kajo Keji.
“When they reached to Mangalatore they killed one old person and then when they came back to Sokare they also killed one person, and then they burned the church, they burned all the small buildings around the church, they burned the whole village,” Aba told The Messenger by phone.
The bishop said the government troops pulled back toward Bori afterward. A rebel soldier in Sokare, speaking to The Messenger on Tuesday, corroborated this account. Government army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said the SPLA captured Bori last week but had no information on fighting in Sokare and Mangalatore.
The storming of the rebel areas marks a major advancement for the government in Kajo Keji, whose troops are based in the county’s east but had never reached as far west as Bori. The attacks also came on the heels of days of fighting among rebel groups in the west.
The county had been mostly held by the SPLA-In Opposition, which is South Sudan’s largest rebel group, led by former vice president Riek Machar. But in mid-October, a smaller group called the National Salvation Front (NAS) came down from Lainya and captured Sokare and Bori from the SPLA-IO.
Sokare had been the SPLA-IO’s administrative headquarters.
“The government forces took advantage of the fighting between the rebel groups. They organized themselves and they quickly came and attacked the NAS forces from behind in Bori,” Aba explained.
NAS is led by ex-army general Thomas Cirillo. The contingent from Lainya was led by General John Kenyi Loburon, who defected from the SPLA-IO to NAS in July.
The SPLA-IO’s commander in Kajo Keji, General Moses Lokujo, said seven of his soldiers were killed when Loburon attacked from Lainya. He added that he withdrew forces from the frontline with the government in the country’s east to fight Loburon.
“He killed some of my officers so I had to fight him,” Lokujo said.
It is unclear who now controls Bori and its barracks.
The bishop, citing his own sources, said on Thursday that the government holds the town, surrounded by NAS forces. Army spokesman Koang also claimed the town was under government control.
But Lokujo disputed this. “I am in Bori now,” he said Thursday by phone. “These [government] guys have burned some of the houses, but we are okay. The security is fine.”
He also said the NAS forces “scattered” to Kajo Keji’s hills and to Ugandan refugee camps.
“I will fight Kenyi [Loburon] even if he surrendered to our forces,” he said.
NAS General Loburon’s phones were unreachable when called throughout the week. For his part, NAS spokesman Yien Matthew claimed Bori was under his side’s control, but also admitted they had withdrawn from some areas.
“We have been actually attacked like five times now by the government so we had to shift, but we are within the same county, so we just shifted to a better place for tactical reasons,” he said.