Photographer: Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP via Getty Images

New Rebel Group Threatens to Intensify South Sudan's War

  • Rebel group of 30,000 fighters readying to challenge president
  • Three-year civil war has already left tens of thousands dead

A former general in South Sudan’s army said he commands a new rebel movement of at least 30,000 fighters that will seek to overthrow President Salva Kiir, threatening to deepen the three-year civil war in Africa’s newest nation.

Thomas Cirillo, a former lieutenant general, resigned as deputy chief for logistics in South Sudan’s army in February, accusing Kiir of waging a “tribally engineered war” and turning the military into a force dominated by the Dinka, the president’s ethnic group.

Now, Cirillo says his National Salvation Front includes four rebel groups and is prepared to challenge his one-time colleagues. That could mean more bloodshed for a conflict that’s already claimed tens of thousands of lives and led to the world’s first official declaration of famine since 2011.

“We are sure, that with few armaments, the light armaments that we have, with revolutionary spirit and zeal, we’ll be able to defeat Kiir’s forces,” Cirillo said in an interview in Addis Ababa, the capital of neighboring Ethiopia. South Sudan’s presidential spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, dismissed the threat.

South Sudan’s war began in December 2013 after Kiir accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, of plotting his overthrow. The army fractured, and civilians of Machar’s Nuer community were massacred in the capital, Juba. It was the first of multiple atrocities by both sides in which specific ethnic groups, including Dinkas, have been targeted. While the main rebel organization, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition, coalesced around Machar, many other groups have since taken up arms.

Northern Famine

Famine was declared in two northern counties of South Sudan in February. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a U.S.-backed monitoring group, has warned starvation could spread to another county in the July to September lean season. South Sudan, which holds sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest crude reserves, has seen oil production decline by at least a third to less than 130,000 barrels a day since the war began.

Cirillo said he and Machar’s rebels haven’t made any formal agreement to cooperate. A spokesman for Machar’s forces, James Koang Chol, put the number of their fighters at 204,000. The figure couldn’t be verified.

Cirillo, who was the highest ranked ethnic Equatorian in the army, described his coalition as “not a tribal movement but a national movement,” and one that Dinkas could also take part in. “We’re not appealing to Equatorians and Nuer as such, but we’re appealing to the whole nation to join us,” he said.

He wouldn’t comment on its sources of finance, weapons or supplies. Cirillo said he’s appealing to countries including the so-called Troika -- the U.S., U.K. and Norway -- that helped to negotiate South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, and East African nations for backing. The Troika supported a peace deal that brought Machar briefly back into government in 2016, before it collapsed amid renewed violence.

Groups Joined

Among the groups to have joined Cirillo’s front is the South Sudan Democratic Army-Cobra Faction, whose members are mainly from the Murle community in Jonglei state. The group made a peace deal with Kiir’s government in 2014.

Payton Knopf, a former coordinator with the United Nations Panel of Experts on South Sudan, said by phone from Washington that such a move will alter the balance of power in Jonglei.

Short of logistical support, Cirillo’s group will probably struggle to challenge Kiir, according to Douglas Johnson, an independent researcher and the author of “The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars.”

“Unless they have the finances and equipment to back this up it will be very difficult to keep a united armed opposition group together and growing,” he said by email.

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