May 12, 2010 / 6:28 PM / 10 years ago

Renegade South Sudan general clashes with army

* Revolt stokes fears ahead of secession referendum

* General says wants talks, army expresses doubt

By Skye Wheeler

JUBA, Sudan, May 12 (Reuters) - A renegade south Sudanese army commander said his forces clashed with government troops for the third time in a week on Wednesday but said he still wanted to negotiate an end to his revolt.

General George Athor rebelled along with an unknown number of soldiers after losing in elections last month for the governorship of the oil-producing south’s Jonglei state, stoking tensions in a region already hit by drought, ethnic violence and civil war.

Athor accused the south’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) of rigging the vote, demanded the removal of the winner and later threatened to attack state capital Bor.

The small rebellion has raised fears for the stability of Sudan’s underdeveloped south eight months ahead of a referendum on whether the region should split off as an independent country scheduled for January 2010.

Much of remote Jonglei state is taken up in a largely unexplored oil concession owned by France’s Total (TOTF.PA), a major hope for the southern government, which is almost wholly dependent on oil revenues.

"This morning at 7.10 (0410 GMT) the forces of Salva (Kiir, the south’s president) attacked our position ... Four people were killed on our side and five were wounded. On their side 83 are dead," Athor said told Reuters on Wednesday.

Speaking by satellite telephone Athor said he was "still looking forward to negotiation" and had spoken with un-named representatives from the United Nations who he hoped would oversee a deal to end the stand-off.

The southern army (SPLA) said there had been a confrontation with Athor’s men in Jongeli’s Thougiak area but disputed the death count.

"A (reconnaissance) squad of SPLA soldiers accidentally found where he was hiding ... They fired at our squad killing two soldiers and wounding two. We did not kill any from his side," said SPLA spokesman Kuol Diem Kuol.

"We had it in our minds that he wanted to negotiate, but now we don’t know if he has abandoned the negotiations. We have the means to fight him."

Athor was one of a number of high-profile SPLM members who decided to run as independents after failing to get the party nomination, sparking internal divisions.

Both the elections and the referendum were promised in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended two decades of civil war between Sudan’s Muslim north and the south where most follow Christianity and traditional beliefs.

Much of east Africa was destabilized by the north-south war and some analysts fear a heavily armed population and tribal and political rivalries in the south could lead to an unstable state after the referendum.

Southerners are widely expected to vote for secession.

Athor has been on the run since late April, when the southern army accused him of ordering an attack on a barracks that killed eight soldiers. He denied ordering that attack but reported clashes with the army on Thursday and Monday. (Edited by Philippa Fletcher)

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