NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — South Sudan's army chief of staff, accused of directing last year's fighting in the capital that left hundreds dead, has been removed from his post after months of government infighting and high-level military resignations and as ethnic violence in the country's civil war has dramatically increased.
Paul Malong, whose removal was announced Tuesday night, has long been considered a hardliner in the government of President Salva Kiir. Diplomats repeatedly have accused him of undermining the country's 2015 peace agreement.
Ateny Wek Ateny told The Associated Press that Malong was removed because he had been in charge for over three years. Ateny called that a violation of army rules.
Lt. Gen. James Ajongo Mawut has been named to replace Malong, who did not answer repeated attempts for comment.
A statement later read out on state television Tuesday night did not provide a reason for the removal. Government officials sought to downplay it, with army spokesman Santo Domic Chol calling it "routine."
But a U.N. official said South Sudan's army reportedly was on high alert. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
South Sudan's civil war has killed tens of thousands and created the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis, with no end to the conflict in sight.
Analysts have said tensions between the army under Malong and the National Security Services under Akol Koor have split South Sudan's government, with hardliners like Malong gaining more influence in recent weeks.
In February, a handful of top-level military officials resigned while accusing Kiir and Malong of ethnic bias and corruption. The resignations included the former judge advocate general of South Sudan's army, the former head of military courts and a top general, Thomas Cirillo Swaka.
South Sudan's military has been increasingly chaotic. Some soldiers have not been paid for months, and Kiir said in October he had been forced to rely on soldiers from his Dinka ethnic group.
"Malong is a strong Dinka nationalist and key player in ethnic violence since 2013," Jeremy Konyndyk, a former Obama administration official, told the AP.
Last year, a U.N. panel of experts said Malong had directed the July fighting in the capital, Juba, that killed hundreds and caused a surge in violence across the country.
The United States later led efforts to have the U.N. Security Council sanctions on Malong for violating the country's peace agreement, but the attempt failed.