NAIROBI, Kenya — A major rebel leader was killed by South Sudan government forces, officials said Tuesday, providing a possible boost to the fledgling East African government and U.S. ally.
The aging rebel, George Athor, was intercepted by a military patrol near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and killed, said South Sudan military spokesman Philip Aguer. Reports that Athor was killed in a firefight could not be confirmed.
An Athor spokesman said that he last spoke with the rebel leader Monday night. Asked to confirm his death, James Nuot Puot said, "Actually, I don't have a clue yet. I've been trying his phone since the morning."
South Sudan's struggles in quelling bloody internal divisions have concerned its friends in Washington, who pushed hard for the 2005 peace deal that allowed the nation to secede from northern Sudan through a popular referendum earlier this year.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Athor was just one of several rogue dissidents to take up arms against the South Sudanese leadership in the past two years, but the general's insider credentials posed a uniquely existential threat to the government. Before defecting, he had served for nearly two decades in the former rebel movement that now governs South Sudan, rising to the post of army deputy chief of staff.
Athor tried to use that seniority to rally the myriad localized insurgencies under his own command, but with only limited success. His loss deprives the armed opposition of perhaps its most prominent figure and could splinter the already disparate movements even further.
The news also could have direct implications for U.S. business interests. Earlier this month, the U.S. government altered sanction regulations to pave the way for American companies to enter South Sudan's oil industry. Athor and other militias roamed within the area considered ripest for future oil exploration.
The site of Athor's reported death — in South Sudan's Central Equatoria state, hundreds of miles from his base in northern Jonglei — perplexed officials and suggested that the rebel leader was trying to expand his insurgency or recruit fighters from a new region.
According to Aguer, the military spokesman, Athor was carrying a Kenyan passport under a fake name that showed him flying from Khartoum, Sudan, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Saturday, and from there to Rwanda.
"He entered from Congo, but how he went to Congo we don't know," said Aguer.
Puot said that he had no information about any visit by Athor to Central Equatoria, but he said it is possible that the general traveled to visit sympathetic forces in the area.
Athor was in the Rwandan capital of Kigali on Sunday, Puot said. From there, it is possible that he crossed into Congolese territory and then headed north back into South Sudan.
While a short-term victory for South Sudan's leaders, Athor's death in the long run risks further inflaming internal conflicts. Athor was the only major rebel figure who was also a member of South Sudan's dominant tribe, the Dinka. Most of the rebels, including most of Athor's rank and file, are from smaller minority groups, especially the Nuer.
In one example of the growing rivalries, a group identifying itself as "Nuer Community in USA" on Saturday issued an email statement calling for the creation of a Nuer defense militia and accused the South Sudanese government of plotting "to exterminate the Nuer tribe in South Sudan."
With Athor now out of the picture, South Sudan's divisions could take on a much more nakedly ethnic tinge.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY