JUBA (Reuters) - A powerful South Sudanese army officer and former militia leader influential in some of the country's richest oil regions during its long civil war with the north has died, officials said on Wednesday.
Paulino Matip, deputy commander in chief of South Sudan's national army, was a key figure in the civil war that killed an estimated 2 million people and left the now-independent South one of the world's least developed countries.
South Sudan seceded from Sudan a year ago under a 2005 peace deal and the new government has been struggling to impose its authority over a country the size of France awash with guns.
Backed by Khartoum, Matip had split from the southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) during the war and battled factions of the rebel army in areas of the oil-rich Unity State.
He rejoined the SPLA in 2006 under President Salva Kiir's "big tent" policy of reconciliation to unite the South after the peace deal.
Matip "contributed a lot to the unity and reconciliation in this country," South Sudan's Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters after announcing he had died in Kenya of a "long illness" while waiting to fly to the United States for treatment.
His body is due to be flown to Juba on Friday for burial.
"I think the problems of cohesion were resolved by Paulino Matip," Benjamin said.
Historians describe Matip as a man driven more by ambition during the war than by ideology.
He was "the quintessential freebooter, willing to ally himself with God or the devil, depending on which would supply him with the resources to sustain his panache and his private army," Sudan historian Robert O. Collins wrote.
One of his main interests during the war was protecting and developing a "small trading empire" based on cattle and sorghum in the areas near Bentiu, capital of Unity State, according to historian Douglas Johnson.
Rebel fighting and clashes between rival communities over cattle and other conflicts have killed hundreds of people since South Sudan's independence, mostly in remote areas. The army is composed largely of former militias like Matip's.
Information Minister Benjamin dismissed the suggestion that the SPLA would see any splits or defections because of Matip's death.
"We don't foresee any division of any kind. After all what we were all fighting for was to get our country. Here it is today," he said.
(Reporting by Mading Ngor and Alexander Dziadosz; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)