JUBA: South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has sacked his army chief, a military spokesman said, replacing him with a loyalist from his own ethnic group as the country’s four-month conflict shows signs of being increasingly fought along tribal lines.
Kiir also replaced his head of intelligence, days after government troops were routed from a major oil hub by rebels loyal to Kiir’s former deputy Riek Machar, and hundreds of civilians were massacred.
Army spokesman Philip Aguer said Gen. Paul Malong, a stalwart of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, had replaced army chief Gen. James Hoth Mai.
The violence in the central African state, the size of France, has mainly pitted Kiir’s Dinka people against Machar’s Nuer. Thousands have been killed, and more than 1 million people uprooted from their homes.
“Malong is a Kiir loyalist and a Dinka hard-liner,” said one analyst, who did not wish to be identified.
Mai was the most prominent Nuer within the SPLA, a former guerrilla force that became the national army of the south after the end of the civil war with Sudan in 2005.
He had been seen as an emblem of Dinka-Nuer cooperation within the military, and his removal was unexpected, said Jonah Leff, an Africa analyst with Conflict Armament Research.
The SPLA has been riven by defections since fighting broke out in December. Many former Nuer militia fighters who were incorporated into the SPLA after independence from Sudan in 2011 have defected to join Machar’s ranks.
Intelligence chief Paul Mach was replaced by Gen. Marial Nour Jok, spokesman Aguer said. Both men are Dinka.
President Kiir did not give a reason for the sackings, which were announced on national television Wednesday night.
After capturing the town of Bentiu in oil-rich Unity state last week, rebels aligned to Machar hunted down men, women and children hiding in a mosque, church and hospital and then killed them based on their ethnicity, the United Nations says.
In the main mosque alone, “more than 200 civilians were reportedly killed and over 400 wounded,” the U.N. mission said Monday.
It said that both South Sudanese and Sudanese – some from Sudan’s Darfur region – were killed in “targeted killings” after rebels took Bentiu from government forces.
The rebels deny the allegation. But they acknowledge they are targeting South Sudan’s oil fields, an economic lifeline that pays for the vast majority of the government’s budget.
Rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said Machar’s forces took over the town of Renk and were nearing Paloch in the Upper Nile State, the biggest oil installation in the country. He said the rebel side had again called on oil companies to “stop production and evacuate staff/employees to avoid being caught in crossfire.”
Aguer, however, said the SPLA had fought off rebels in Renk. Access to these remote areas is difficult for journalists, making it hard to independently verify the accounts.
The East African IGAD bloc brokering the peace talks between the two sides said the conflict was disrupting economic activity in the region and stopping food production at a time when South Sudan was at risk of a serious famine.
“[IGAD] calls on the international community to act now to put pressure on both parties to stop the war and prevent a deeper catastrophe from unfolding in South Sudan,” the bloc said in a statement.
A cease-fire signed by the two sides in January failed to hold.
U.N. Security Council members are considering sanctions on South Sudan’s warring parties after U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous demanded “serious consequences” be imposed on both sides to force an end to the violence.
The 15 Council members Thursday “expressed horror and anger” over the killings of hundreds of people in Bentiu and “expressed their readiness to consider appropriate measures against those responsible” – an allusion to possible sanctions.
The Council called for “an immediate end to all human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law” and demanded that the government of Kiir protect civilians.
The Security Council also called on the office of U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay to launch a probe into what happened in Bentiu.
Council members “deplored strongly the systematic targeting of civilians based on their ethnicity; the pursuit and execution of civilians inside places of safety, including a mosque, a church, and a hospital; and the use of radio broadcasts to foment hate and sexual violence.”