JUBA — Two months into the conflict in South Sudan, government officials have said that thousands of soldiers have defected from the army and joined anti-government forces.
Government Chief Whip Tulio Odongi said between 60 and 70 percent of SPLA soldiers have defected while army spokesman Philip Aguer said there have been "a sizeable number" of defections.
"The rough figure will be around 10,000-20,000 of the SPLA force who have defected,” Aguer said. He refused to say what percentage of the total number of SPLA troops that represented.
Odongi said most of the troops who have gone to fight for the opposition are former militia fighters who have been integrated into the SPLA over the years since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the decades-long war between Khartoum and then rebels from southern Sudan.
Odongi said he believes integrating militia fighters into the SPLA was a mistake.
"Soldiers recruited under the political cut shall always remain loyal to their masters," he said.
Despite the admission that thousands of SPLA troops have defected, the government remains hopeful that peace talks in Addis Ababa will end the conflict, Odongi said.
Once the talks achieve that, the government should concentrate on professionalizing the army, he said.
Representatives from the pro- and anti-government sides have been in the Ethiopian capital since last week for the second round of talks aimed at starting a political dialogue and beginning the reconciliation process in South Sudan, where thousands are believed to have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been displaced by weeks of conflict.
The first round of talks ended in late January with agreements to stop hostilities immediately and to expedite the release of 11 political figures who were detained in the days following the start of the crisis.
Both sides have accused the other of breaching the cessation of hostilities agreement and only seven of the 11 detainees have been released.
They are currently at the talks in Addis Ababa, but the government of South Sudan has said it has enough evidence to charge the other four, who are still in detention, with treason for plotting what President Salva Kiir has said was an unsuccessful attempt to oust him on Dec. 15, which started the weeks of fighting.