JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN —
Rebel leader David Yau Yau said Monday he is fighting for a separate state for ethnic minorities who are deprived of their rights in South Sudan, and dismissed as "a joke" an offer from the government in Juba to hold peace talks.
"This time around, we are fighting for the people of South Sudan, the minority communities like the Murle and the others," Yau Yau said by phone from Pibor in an exclusive interview with VOA News.
"They don’t have a voice... they don’t have rights to live in the land. We don’t have a voice in the government. We are struggling together with them and we’ve lost some of our sons," he said.
"We are fighting now to get our own freedom, to be given our own state."
An ethnic Murle who was once a student of theology, Yau Yau confirmed that rebel fighters under his leadership have captured the town of Boma and are "still moving ahead," ignoring calls for peace from church leaders, including the retired bishop of Torit diocese, Paride Taban, who said the fighting in Jonglei has forced hundreds to flee their homes.
Boma, in Jonglei state, is psychologically important: it was the first town the South Sudanese Army, the SPLA, captured from the Sudan Armed Forces during the long civil war against Khartoum, taking control of it in 1985 and holding it until the end of war in 2005.
On Monday, Yau Yau's rebel movement said in a statement that it was "on the verge" of capturing Pibor town and that two battalions of rebel fighters had been sent to attack Bor, the state capital of Jonglei.
"There will be no car that shall move between Juba and Bor town in coming few days," the statement said.
"The civilians should avoid travelling between Juba and Bor town as soon as possible for their own safety."
Yau Yau dismissed the government's offers to talk peace, calling what Juba was offering "no kind of peace at all. It’s just a joke."
Yau Yau first rebelled against the government in 2010 after failing to win a seat in the state parliament.
"His armed engagements with the SPLA resembled minor banditry attacks rather than full military operations and resulted in relatively low death tolls," the Small Arms Survey says on its website.
In 2011 he accepted an offer of amnesty from President Salva Kiir and returned to Juba where he was promoted to the rank of general in the South Sudanese army, the SPLA.
But last year, he resumed his rebellion against Juba, and this time, his rebels were numerous and heavily armed, according to the Small Arms Survey.
"It is estimated that 4,000–6,000 largely Murle youth have either directly joined Yau Yau’s ranks...The SPLA have captured AK-47s and RPG-7s from the rebel forces, but reports suggest that they are equipped with machine guns and mortars as well," the Geneva-based NGO said.
Government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin said Yau Yau was not fighting for a cause, like minority rights, but because he was a sore loser.
"There’s no truth in what he’s saying he’s fighting for," Marial said.
"This government is well represented, if it is an issue of ethnicity. He’s not fighting for this cause; he’s fighting because he lost the elections," he said.
Yau Yau's rebels have been accused of numerous killings since they relaunched their insurgency, including the slayings of more than 100 civilians and their SPLA escort in a cattle raid in January, and five UN peacekeepers from India and seven local staff members last month.
The government launched an offensive against Yau Yau's rebels in March this year, vowing to defeat the insurgents by the start of the rainy season, usually in May.