Fighting between Southern Sudan's military and forces loyal to a southern rebel leader has killed 51 troops and dislodged the renegade army commander from his bush outpost, officials said Tuesday.
Southern Sudan voted in January to secede from Sudan's north, but violence has flared in multiple locations across the south in the last two weeks, underscoring the challenges the region faces before it declares independence on July 9.
The evicted rebel leader, George Athor, told The Associated Press by satellite phone that his forces withdrew from their base in the village of Korwai in the southern state of Jonglei.
"We withdrew after it was dark because we ran out of ammunition and we could not expose our people without ammunition," said Athor, a former deputy chief of staff in the southern military who resigned from the military to run for state governor but lost the election and rebelled against the government.
Col. Philip Aguer, the spokesman for the southern military, said the military took Athor's headquarters in Korwai as well as weapons and equipment.
Asked about his location and if he was personally involved in the fighting, Athor replied: "I'm not hiding. The (southern army) knows my place very well."
The southern army spokesman told the AP that the army did not know where Athor had withdrawn to, but said that the army had "stabilized the region" and was now conducting a "mop-up operation" and will soon provide casualty figures.
An international official said 35 of Athor's men and 16 troops in the southern military died in the fighting Monday. Aguer said he did not have a death toll, and an aide to Athor offered only what appeared to be a wildly exaggerated toll. The international official spoke on condition of anonymity because the southern military hadn't made any death tolls public.
The spokeswoman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Sudan, Hua Jiang, said U.N. personnel are not able to access the area of the fighting, so she said she couldn't comment on the violence or the death toll.
Southerners voted almost unanimously to separate from northern Sudan in a peaceful referendum in January. Now that the vote has passed, however, internal differences among southerners are resurfacing in the form of insurrections that the southern government worked to contain before the January vote.
The U.N. has a mandate to observe and monitor armed groups and protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, but its troops have not always been able to fulfill that mission since the independence referendum, when a series of violent attacks began.
Last month fighting between the southern army and Athor's forces killed more than 200 people, mostly civilians. U.N. troops did not visit the scene of the attack until several days after it was over.
Days before the referendum, Athor's forces accepted a cease-fire with the southern army, but less than a week after the official results of the vote were announced, fighting resumed between the two sides.
Monday's fighting comes on the heels of violence in Upper Nile state on Sunday that killed more than 50 people. That fighting involved the southern army and another militia force which Athor has claimed is loyal to him.