South Sudan's military forces killed the country's highest-profile rebel leader, a man who posed a significant security threat to peace inside the world's newest country, an official said Tuesday.
Rebel leader George Athor was a former lieutenant general in South Sudan's military during the 1983-2005 civil war with Sudan. But Athor launched a rebellion after losing an April 2010 election for governor of Jonglei state, a vote he maintained was rigged.
Troops loyal to Athor fought repeatedly with South Sudanese forces over the last year, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
South Sudanese officials on Tuesday leveled serious charges against Athor, saying he had been making contacts with the region's most insidious rebel group _ the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA _ and that officials in Sudan's capital Khartoum had been financing him.
South Sudan has repeatedly accused its northern neighbor, Sudan, with providing support and assistance to Athor and other rebel groups. Sudan has denied those accusations.
South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar, in announcing Athor's death on Tuesday, said Athor had been in Rwanda, Congo and Uganda recently in a drive to recruit fighters. Col. Philip Aguer, South Sudan's military spokesman, said Athor was making militant contacts in preparation for a Christmastime attack.
Aguer said one South Sudanese soldier and one of Athor's men were also killed during the exchange on Monday evening.
Aguer said Athor's death was a major victory for the people of South Sudan which "has deprived Khartoum of an important tool."
Athor was the last major rebel leader still active in South Sudan.
South Sudan has tried repeatedly to broker peace with Athor. During South Sudan's independence ceremony from Sudan in July, President Salva Kiir offered amnesty to all rebels fighting in the country, including Athor.
Machar said Tuesday that the deal still stands.
"I call on all who rebelled against the government to lay down their arms and join the process of peace and development," he said.
Even as South Sudan faces the threat of military action from its northern neighbor, John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, an advocacy group that does work in Sudan, said Athor's death highlights the urgent need to address divisions within South Sudan.
"Another Athor will emerge tomorrow unless real progress is made in providing political and economic opportunities that feel marginalized in the process of independence," Prendergast said.
Athor's death will likely be seen as a victory for South Sudan, which has been plagued by rebel movements for years. But Jonah Leff, a Researcher for the Small Arms Survey, a security analysis group working in South Sudan, said he does not believe Athor's death will solve the rebel problem.
"I do not believe that an SPLA policy of assassinating rebel militia leaders is an effective one," said Leff. "The killing of Athor is likely to embolden many of his followers as well as other militias, including the SSLA and the Shilluk rebels in Unity and Upper Nile, respectively."
The South Sudan Liberation Army, or SSLA, is comprised of forces formerly loyal to rebel leader Gatluak Gai, who was killed in July by his own men, weeks after accepting South Sudan's offer of amnesty.
The SSLA operates in South Sudan's oil-rich Unity State, and could become a major problem for the government.
"In fact," said Leff, "the SSLA has been in serious unification talks with Athor, whose death is certain to create a vacuum of power in Jonglei, allowing the SSLA to rise to prominence."
Athor's death comes just days after the SSDM and SSLA issued a joint statement accusing South Sudan of attempting to assassinate him. The statement _ issued Dec. 13 _ said a man dressed as a priest and a woman were found carrying guns as they attempted to meet Athor. According to the statement, the two alleged assassins claimed to represent the Anglican Church, which has attempted to broker peace between Athor and the government of South Sudan.