South Sudan’s top rebel leader, George Athor, has been killed in a clash with the country's military, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The government is appealing for Athor's supporters and other rebel groups in the newly independent country to lay down their arms and accept a presidential amnesty.
South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar said Athor was killed late Monday in Central Equatoria state, where he was trying to recruit more soldiers for his rebel army, after visiting neighboring countries.
“On December 19th, 2011, an SPLA Border Patrol at Morobo County clashed with elements that were in the company of Lt. General George Athor. This took place around 1800 hours. George Athor and one other soldier were killed instantly,” said Machar.
Responding to questions from reporters, Machar said the government had not planned to kill Athor. His rebel movement, the South Sudan Democratic Movement, released a statement Sunday accusing the government of trying to assassinate the renegade SPLA general on December 13.
Athor left the SPLA in April 2010 to run as governor in Jonglei state. After losing the race, he launched an attack on the government. The clashes caused widespread death and destruction in parts of Jonglei state.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country in July, after gaining independence from the north following decades of civil war. The country is still wracked by instability. President Salva Kiir’s offer of amnesty to rebel groups willing to lay down their arms has drawn some leaders back to the fold.
But after meeting Kiir for secret talks in Nairobi last month, Athor rejected a peace deal when his calls for nationwide elections and Cabinet posts were not met. Athor warned of more violence to come.
Vice President Machar reiterated the fledgling government’s call for peace, appealing to Athor’s followers to lay down their arms and help build the new nation.
On the streets of Juba, people from Jonglei and beyond were shocked at Athor’s death, but hoped it could bring peace.
Banker Philip Jok from Bor, the state capital of Jonglei, said that he felt justice had been done to a man who has perpetrated so much violence, and hoped other rebels in South Sudan would take heed.
"I am very happy about it, as he was harassing the people of South Sudan. Now, it is the start of the stability in southern Sudan," said Jok."I think that other rebel groups will have no morale of continuing with the fight. The killing of Athor has demoralized the other rebel groups, since they were fighting for no reason."
Others remain skeptical that such a notorious character in South Sudan's history is really dead, despite government promises to show footage on TV before the army brings Athor's body back to Juba for burial.