NAIROBI— As fighting continues between South Sudanese government troops and forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, long-time rebel leader David Yau Yau has agreed to lay down arms, officials say.
"The ministry of defense has this declaration of ceasefire by the Sudan People Liberation Army towards forces of David Yau Yau following the progress of negotiations that have been on-going for the last three months," South Sudanese Army spokesman Philip Aguer said in an announcement read out on national television Monday.
"I am directing the leadership of the SPLA to put into effect a ceasefire and to cease fighting forces of David Yau Yau," he said.
Yau Yau began holding peace talks with the government three months ago after holding a series of meetings with religious leaders led by Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Torit.
Taban said Yau Yau and his rebel forces have "remained peaceful" since the negotiations began and even when the violence that erupted in Juba on Dec. 15 spread to Jonglei state, where Yau Yau is based.
Many civilians displaced by the on-going fighting have sought refuge in Yau Yau's home county in Jonglei, Pibor, Taban said.
“That is why he gave a letter to the president that he wants a ceasefire to be done so that the people under his care should be supplied," the retired bishop said.
"He said, 'I will never join war, I am waiting for peaceful reconciliation with the government.'”
In the statement read out on television, Aguer said Yau Yau and the government have recognized "that given the humanitarian crisis that has befallen the civil population in the entire areas of Jonglei... there is a need to cease hostilities."
Former theology student turned rebel
An ethnic Murle who was once a student of theology, Yau Yau last year led his rebels in pitched battles against government forces for control of key towns in Jonglei state.
In May last year, he told VOA that he was 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 to hold peace talks.
Just weeks later, a delegation of Murle leaders from Jonglei state met with Yau Yau and pleaded with him to "stop his rebellion because it is affecting the community and destroying development in the area," Nyany Korok, a Murle youth leader who was part of the 15-strong delegation that met with Yau Yau, said.
Following the outreach by the Murle leaders, Yau Yau agreed to begin peace talks with representatives of the government, but it took several months for the negotiations to get under way.
"Yau Yau has been ready for peace since November," Taban said.
"He selected 10 of his people -- they were ready for negotiations. The government promised to give us five (delegates for negotiations) but we have been waiting until now,” he said.
The bishop said the talks between Yau Yau and the government will be held in Addis Ababa as soon as a government negotiating team has been named.
Yau Yau first rebelled against Juba after he failed to win a parliamentary seat in the April 2010 general elections, accusing the ruling SPLM party of rigging the elections.
In 2011, he accepted an amnesty offer from President Salva Kiir and returned to Juba where he was promoted to the rank of SPLA general. But in 2012 he left the army, fled to Khartoum, and started a new rebellion against Juba in Jonglei state.
Rebels led by Yau Yau have been accused of being behind a cattle raid a year ago in which more than 100 people were killed, most of them women and children.
Juba has accused Khartoum of supporting Yau Yau’s rebellion in a bid to block plans to build a oil pipeline through Jonglei state and Ethiopia, which would reduce South Sudan's dependence on Sudan for exporting its oil, the mainstay of its economy.
Sudan has denied the claims, and on Monday, during a visit to Juba, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir pledged that Sudan will never support rebels fighting against the government of one of its neighbors because it "would only cause instability, exhaustion of resources and destruction of ties between countries."