By Jason Patinkin
KAMPALA (Reuters) - South Sudanese troops raided the home of the exiled former army commander, relatives said on Friday, after his rival was named to command troops in his home region to counter any threats he might pose to the government.
Soldiers and National Security agents entered the compound belonging to Paul Malong and assaulted a neighbor while searching for weapons, said a relative who witnessed the alleged incident in the town of Malualkhon in the Aweil region. A second Malong family member confirmed the raid.
Army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said he had "no official information" that security forces raided Malong's house.
Oil-rich South Sudan has been at war since 2013, when forces loyal to ex-vice president Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, began fighting with troops loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka. The conflict has split the nation into a patchwork of ethnic fiefs.
Malong had buttressed his power by recruiting men from Aweil to fight in ethnic militias while also commanding the military, according to U.N. experts. But Kiir fired Malong, also a Dinka, in May after a power struggle and put him under house arrest in the capital Juba amid fears he might start a revolt from Aweil.
Malong loyalists started joining rebels and in November, Kiir released Malong to exile in Kenya.
Thursday's alleged raid unfolded after the appointment of Malong's longtime rival, General Dau Auterjong, to the top military post in Aweil. He had rebelled against Malong's army from 2014 until last year, when he rejoined the government.
Auterjong's appointment "turns the screws" on Malong by undercutting his military strength in Aweil, according to South Sudan researcher Alan Boswell.
"Malong was ready for a fight when he was fired. Now his ability to challenge Kiir is much weaker," Boswell said.
In September, the United States sanctioned Malong for his role in the civil war, which has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced a third of the population, and pushed parts of South Sudan into famine.
(Editing by Katharine Houreld and Mark Heinrich)