March 10, 2014
South Sudan forces battle 'White Army'
South Sudan's army fought today with the "White Army" ethnic militia, accusing rebels of mobilising the force despite its offer of a truce to end the conflict in the new country.
Two weeks of fighting have left at least 1,000 dead and split the oil-producing country barely two years after it won independence from Sudan. It has also raised fears of an all-out civil war between the main Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups which could destabilise fragile East Africa.
The feared White Army - made up largely of Nuer youths who dust their bodies with ash - clashed with government troops 18 miles from the town of Bor five days after rebels were driven out, Information Minister Michael Makuei said.
A rebel spokesman denied the White Army was controlled by Riek Machar, a Nuer, the former vice president whose followers oppose President Salva Kiir, a Dinka.
Makuei stated that the White Army militia had dwindled in numbers - from estimated 25,000 strong - after Nuer politicians and tribal elders persuaded them to abandoned their march on Bor.
"About 5,000 refused to abandon the march and they have proceeded with their advance on Bor. They then dislodged (government troops) from Mathiang, about 18 miles from Bor," Makuei said by phone from South Sudan's capital, Juba, 190 km (120 miles) south of Bor by road.
The White Army are recognised by the ash, prepared from burnt cow dung, with which they cover themselves to ward off insects. They are armed with machetes, sticks and guns.
Rebel spokesman Moses Ruai Lat said that rather than being under Machar's control, the armed Nuer youth were an "independently organised force".
Army spokesman Philip Aguer said the rebels were mobilising youths and armed civilians for another attack on Malakal, the capital of the oil-producing Upper Nile state. Rebels were pushed out of the town on Friday.
Toby Lanzer, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, told Reuters by phone from Malakal that about 25,000 people are seeking refuge in the town's U.N. base. He said streets were empty and the town's busy market had been looted.
"There is palpable sense of fear among people who have either lost everything or been caught in the crossfire, or who simply don't feel safe enough to be home," Lanzer said, adding that the UN estimates at least 180,000 people have been displaced during the 15 days of fighting in South Sudan.