1 April 2011

Sudan: Renegade General Athor - I Remain Committed to Peaceful Settlement

Wau — George Athor Deng Dut, a former senior military officer in the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), turned rebel, said on Friday he remained committed to peaceful settlement of the conflict believed to have claimed over 300 lives and displaced countless others since he launched his rebellion on 30th of April 2010.

Speaking to Sudan Tribune on Friday from an undisclosed location by phone, Athor said he was not in Khartoum and that he remained committed to a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

"Our position to negotiate how to settle our reservations and issues which concerned our people has always been one of our desires and demands. We have never changed this position. We have never rejected any attempt for peaceful settlement. Our people need peace and so do we. We are ready for any peaceful settlement if the other people are ready to negotiate with us," said Athor.

"I am not in Khartoum and have not gone to Khartoum. I am speaking to you from my base in south Sudan. Who said I am in Khartoum or I have gone to Khartoum? When did they say we met or saw me in Khartoum?" asked Athor.

Officials from GoSS, including the SPLM secretary general Pagan Amum last month accused Khartoum of supporting the rebellion in the south through proxy militias. He also claimed Athor flew to Khartoum after fleeing from his base. "I have never gone to Khartoum and I do not have any intention to go. What for?" asked Athor, an interview with Sudan Tribune on Friday.

Attempts made by Sudan Tribune to contact spokesman of the SPLA failed. Atem Biar, a member of the SPLM in Juba said the request for a peaceful settlement by Athor is another trick to regroup his forces for other atrocities.

"Claims that he is committed to peaceful settlement are mere media tricks. He just wants to use period of negotiations to regroup his forces for other atrocities. No way. The government will not buy these claims. If he needs peace, he has to lay down arms and surrender without making any condition," said Biar.

Athor was one of the senior independent zonal commanders close to late John Garang, chairman of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and commander chief of the SPLA, until his death in 2005, during more than two decades of conflict between north and South Sudan. He rebelled after losing the gubernatorial race for Jonglei state.

Following Garang's death, the leadership council of the movement swiftly moved to name Salva Kiir Mayardit as an immediate successor. Recognising the loyalty and dedication of Athor in his contributions during the war, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, from Major General and named Deputy SPLA Chief of Staff for Political and Moral Orientation, a position he held until when he rebelled in 2010.

Armed groups loyal to him since launching his rebellion clashed on several occasions with forces belonging to the SPLA. In October, the South Sudan President issued an executive order pardoning Athor and his forces.

The decree was also extended to leaders of the other armed groups but gave conditions demanding the laying down arms before assimilation into the SPLA takes place. Athor made reservations requesting South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit, to slightly modify the decree in a way it would cover fate of his armed groups and political supporters.

In December 2010, just a month into the January vote on self determination for the people of South Sudan, president Kiir formed a peace and reconciliation committee including two bishops from Roman Catholic and Episcopal Church of Sudan and army Generals. This was amid calls for peace and reconciliation for the successful conduct of the referendum, as was emphasised by the South Sudanese Political Parties' Conference held at Nyakuron Cultural Centre in Juba, Central Equatoria State, in October 2010.

The committee was primarily tasked with finding ways to end conflict in the area. They met General Athor in one of his hideout bases in his home county of Khorflus, Jonglei state and held talks with him.

Chairman of the committee, Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, described the negotiations and their meeting with General Athor, in one of the interviews with journalists, shortly after arrival from Malakal at Juba International Airports, as successful and encouraging.

On 5 January 2011, just three days before the South Sudanese were to go to the polls, the GoSS announced it was signing an agreement on the cessation of hostilities with the rebellious forces of General Athor, David Yauyau and Colonel Gatluak Gai.

The pact signed in Juba, allows some of the areas previously occupied by forces belonging to both sides of the conflict, to be used as transitory assembly points. Others were to be used as integration points and others were left to forces loyal to either side, based on the consensus.

However, Dok James Puok, spokesman for the renegade groups, on 9 of February 2011, accused SPLA forces of having launched an attack on their forces in three different locations, resulting in heavy fighting, which claimed lives of over 200 people, most of whom were reportedly identified as innocent civilians many of whom had recently returned from northern Sudan in Fangak county, Jonglei State.

Colonel Phillip Aguer Panyang, spokesman for SPLA, in a separate interview with Sudan Tribune at the time, denied launching an attack and blamed Athor of initiating the conflict.

In early March 2011, president Kiir gave SPLA forces an executive mandate to protect the lives of the civilians and their properties and accused Athor to having used the amnesty to recruit more fighters from the local people, against southern army.

Responding to the call made by the president, the SPLA launched an offensive operation aimed at containing the rebellion, resulting in the taking of areas previously under the control of General Athor, including his base.

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