NAIROBI (Reuters) - South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir said on Friday the army chief he sacked was “in a fighting mood”, raising the prospect of further turmoil more than three years into an ethnically-charged civil war.
Kiir told reporters that Paul Malong had not obeyed orders to return from his home state to the capital to hand over to his replacement, and suggested unnamed foreigners were backing the general.
Kiir dismissed Malong - the man who has led his campaign against rebels - this week without spelling out his reasons. The general left Juba with a convoy of vehicles for Aweil in the northwest on Tuesday, raising speculation over his next move.
Several other senior officers have left the army in recent months, accusing the military of rights abuses and ethnic bias. One, Thomas Cirillo Swaka, has announced the formation of his own rebel force and threatened to topple Kiir.
“When I talked to him (Malong) last, he was not in a good mood, he was in a fighting mood ... I tried to calm him down, but he was rather wild,” Kiir told reporters without going into details on what they had discussed or when.
Malong was not immediately available for comment.
Kiir said Malong needed to return to the capital to formally thank him for his years in the top military job and to hand over the position.
“I have assured him (Malong) of his safety as soon as he arrives in Juba,” Kiir said.
“Nobody wants ... Malong to run into such unplanned problems. There are so many foreign hands that are now being seen behind General Paul,” the president added. He did not specify who he thought was backing Malong.
Presidential spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny said Malong had refused to get on a plane sent to collect him, unless all his bodyguards accompanied him. Regulations mean he was only allowed four bodyguards, Ateny said.
South Sudan won independence from Sudan in 2011 but plunged into civil war in 2013 after Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy, Machar, a member of the Nuer ethnic group.
Forces loyal to Kiir clashed with Nuer in the capital, triggering retaliatory attacks across the impoverished nation. Malong is also a Dinka.
The conflict has pitched parts of the oil-producing country into famine, paralysed public services and forced a quarter of the population - 3 million people - to flee their homes.
A senior U.N. rights official said in December parts of the conflict involved ethnic cleansing. Last month, Britain said some of the violence in the oil-producing state amounted to genocide.
On Thursday night, Kiir promoted Marial Chanuong and another general to lieutenant general, officials said.
Chanuong led Kiir’s presidential guard, known as the Tiger Battalion, and is under U.N. Security Council sanctions for his alleged role in massacres of hundreds of Nuer in 2013.
Editing by Aaron Maasho; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Andrew Heavens