Juba — A former South Sudan rebel faction has issued an ultimatum to defected Unity state commander Maj. Gen. James Koang, warning him to return to the fold of the government within three days or its troops would storm the capital, Bentiu.
The South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) said a 5,000-strong force of former SSLA fighters, under the command of Maj. Gen. Mathew Pul Jang, were on standby to launch the military offensive, with civilians and UN staff urged to leave the town.
"In three days, the former SSLA fighters will be in Bentiu town. Civilians and UN staff are advised to leave the town because the former SSLA forces will use heavy artillery to dislodge Maj. Gen. James Koang if he doesn't change his mind before the deadline given to him", the SSLA said in a statement extended to Sudan Tribune on Sunday.
The fourth division commander of the South Sudanese army (SPLA) in Unity state (SPLA) declared himself military governor of Unity state on Saturday after chasing out legitimate governor Joseph Nguen Monytuil.
Monytuil, who fled the fighting on Friday night to Wangkai, west of Bentiu, reported himself on Sunday to Western Bahr el Ghazal state capital Wau, officially confirming that the area had fallen under rebel control.
According to the statement, which bears the name of spokesperson Gordon Buay, Koang is in command of 600 forces stationed in Bentiu town, while the rest of the SPLA's forces in Mayom, Parieng and other counties remain loyal to the government.
The SSLA categorically denied that Unity state was under the control of forces loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar.
"We want to inform the media that Riek Machar was lying that Unity State is under his control. Only the town Bentiu is under Maj. Gen. James Koang who commanded only 600 forces. The rest of SPLA forces outside the town are not with him", the statement said.
Meanwhile, Koang has announced a new interim administration comprising of six state supervisors and seven county commissioners, a day after he defected to the opposition forces and assumed governorship of the oil-rich region.
An estimated 500 people have died after clashes erupted in Juba on 15 December between rival factions of the presidential guards, in what the government claimed was an attempted coup instigated by Machar and his supporters - accusations he denied.
The fighting followed deepening political tensions within the ruling SPLM after president Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, sacked his entire cabinet in July, including Machar, who hails from the Nuer tribe.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other sources have reported that some of the fighting in Juba targeted citizens on the basis of their tribe, with the conflict spilling over to other regions, including Jonglei and Unity states.
The SSLA claims that many officers who had defected from the SPLA ranks were acting out of emotion after learning that members of their tribe were killed in the Juba unrest and not necessarily because they supported Machar.
The group also claims that Machar has failed to win the support of the Nuer political and military elite.