JUBA - South Sudan's main rebel group says an American journalist shot and killed while embedded with rebels Saturday was not taking part in a battle against government forces.
Christopher Allen was shot in the head by government forces at the Kaya border post near Uganda, according to the rebel SPLA-in-Opposition.
Colonel Lam Paul Gabriel, deputy military spokesman for the group, says Allen was “with us in the frontline but he was only photographing” the battle.
Gabriel told VOA's South Sudan in Focus that “government forces fired straight at him and they hit him in the head.”
Government spokesman Michael Makuei painted a different picture, saying “a group of rebels attacked Kaya garrison” on Saturday morning. Makuei tells VOA that during the attack, “the identity of that white man is not known, but he was among those who attacked the garrison.”
The rebels say they tried to retrieve Allen’s body from the battlefield but heavy fighting made it difficult. “We lost two people in the process of retrieving his body but we managed to get his belongings,” Gabriel says.
South Sudan deputy military spokesman Colonel Santo Domic tells VOA that government forces killed 16 rebels in Kaya, including Allen in that number. The rebel military spokesman said his group lost only five - two in Kaya and three in nearby Kimba.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Sunday confirming Allen's death. Allen was a freelance journalist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was covering South Sudan's civil war.
His body was flown to the capital, Juba, in a military helicopter by government forces. Makuei said the body was then transferred to a military hospital.
South Sudan army spokesman Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang said Monday that no one had yet claimed Allen’s body at the hospital mortuary.
Allen’s body, as seen by South Sudan in Focus when it arrived at Juba’s airport, was dressed in civilian clothes with a red ribbon tied to the sleeve of his upper left arm.
Colonel Domic said the red ribbon was similar to what was found on the bodies of slain rebel fighters.
Colonel Gabriel said the ribbon is used to identify fighters and civilians alike, including journalists who work in rebel-controlled territory.
“The red mark is just to identify us from opponents, Gabriel said, adding, “We tie on our head, but for him [Allen], let him put on his left arm to make sure we know he is with us.”
An eyewitness, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety, says the few civilians who remained in Kaya when the fighting broke out Saturday have since fled to neighboring Uganda.
Both rebel and government forces have claimed control of the town.
Allen’s death brings to 10 the number of journalists who have been killed in South Sudan since 2012.