Bor/Juba — South Sudan's army said it had restored order in Pibor town on Monday after conflict broke out between the military and members of an armed group that has recently defected from a rebellion in Jonglei state.
At least one soldier from the South Sudanese army (SPLA) and two civilians are reported to have been killed when SPLA forces and armed men, commanded by former rebel James Kuburin, clashed in the town.
Kuburin and his forces surrendered themselves to the SPLA in Pibor on 27 January after a month of living in the bush with rebel leader David Yau Yau.
The Pibor commissioner, Joshua Konyi, told Sudan Tribune on Sunday that the clash occurred due to a misunderstanding between members of the military police brigade 7 deployed around Pibor market and soldiers under Kuburin, who were blocked from entering the town because they were armed.
Civilians in the area fled to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) camps in Pibor to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
Commissioner Konyi said one SPLA soldier produced a grenade and threatened to kill the armed men who were escorting Kuburin, "but when the rest [of Kuburin's forces] intervened, the grenade blasted and killed two [SPLA] soldiers". On Monday, however, the SPLA said that only one soldier had died but an eyewitness in the area has confirmed to Sudan Tribune the sequence of events.
The SPLA responded by opening fire on Kuburin's forces and chasing them out of town, the commissioner said. Many homes were set on fire during the ensuing gun fight, forcing around 2,000 people to flee to the UNMISS and MSF camps in Pibor, which were not affected by the clash.
A woman and a man were killed in the market during the shooting, while a young boy is said to have sustained injuries, according to commissioner Konyi.
Kuburin was among 200 militiamen aligned with Yau Yau who surrendered to the SPLA in December 2012 in Pibor after months of fighting against the South Sudanese military.
Yau Yau, who hails from the Murle ethnic group, initially rebelled against South Sudan's ruling party (SPLM) after losing his campaign to represent the Gumuruk-Boma constituency of Pibor at the Jonglei State Assembly in the April 2010 elections.
He later accepted an amnesty extended by president Salva Kiir to all militia groups in the country, but again took up arms against the SPLA last year, with his troops remaining active in the Likangole payam [district] of Jonglei.
Around 2,000 people have been killed in clashes between the Murle and Lou Nuer groups during the last two years, with counter cattle raids often sparking violent confrontations.
On Monday the SPLA's spokesman, Colonel Philip Aguer, said the situation in Pibor had "been brought under control" and the "SPLA is in charge".
"One soldier has been lost and James Kuburin ran away with his guards after the incident", he told Sudan Tribune.
Aguer refused to comment on reports alleging that the army "indiscriminately" fired on unarmed civilians while trying to arrest the former militia commander and his men, who were able to flee Pibor and escape.
An eyewitness told Sudan Tribune on Monday by phone that the SPLA had "fired indiscriminately and burned half of Pibor town".
A large section of the "southern part of the town has been burned', the witness said, adding that "a lot of people have been wounded and many others are missing."
Edwardo Del Buey, the deputy spokesperson of the UN secretary-general said on Monday the mission is providing medical assistance to the injured and has helped evacuate two of the injured to Juba, South Sudan's capital.
"The UN mission is actively providing protection to civilians and is in contact with the SPLA and authorities to defuse the situation and ascertain facts. UNMISS remains committed to protecting civilians, but underscores that the Government of South Sudan is primarily responsible for the maintenance of security and the protection of civilians," Buey said in a statement extended to Sudan Tribune.
He reiterated the mission's call for all parties in Pibor to avoid further violence and urged the authorities to take the necessary measures to ensure security.
Yau Yau's first rebellion was linked to the 2010 general election, when he lost his bid to win a seat in the state parliament to Jodi Jonglei, who was on the ticket of South Sudan's ruling party - the SPLM.
Kuburin defected from Yau Yau to join the army in December but remains in command of his men, who have yet to be integrated into the SPLA. The former rebel leader had responded to local calls to end his rebellion. .