May 1, 2014 (JUBA) – South Sudan’s army (SPLA) says it regrets the defection of senior military officers from its third division which covers the area of Warrap and Northern Bahr el Ghazal, as well as extending administrative command support to Unity state, describing the incident as “an unfortunate development”.
- Soldiers from the South Sudanese army (SPLA) soldiers at Jonglei’s Bor airport in after they re-captured the town from rebel forces in January 2014 (AFP)
A senior military commander in the area who spoke on condition of anonymity said he had received reports on Thursday that Brigadier General Gatpel, who was the commander of the headquarters, and Brigadier General Kuol Tap, the brigade commander in Majok Yiiththiou, had left the area without the knowledge of the division commander.
It is not known if the division commander, who is presently engaged in military operations in Unity state, is aware of the development.
The military source told Sudan Tribune on Wednesday that the local command had been closely monitoring the activities of the alleged defected officers in recent months.
“For the last three months, we have been monitoring the movement and the conduct of some officers from [the] Nuer community,” he said.
“We have noticed that they have avoided or limited interactions with fellow officers … and instead increased contacts with soldiers and junior officers from one ethnic group, especially the Nuer. They also refused deployment to areas where the command had recommended, he added.
There have been a series of defections from the army since conflict erupted in mid-December after political tensions between president Salva Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar turned violence.
The fighting has pitted government forces loyal to Kiir, who hails from the Dinka tribe against pro-Machar rebels, largely comprising of defected soldiers and ethnic militias from the former deputy’s Nuer tribe.
Major General Santino Deng Wol, the head of the SPLA’s fifth division did not confirm or deny the reports, although he conceded that some senior officers serving under his command had left the area, but he was still working with the local command and authorities to establish the facts.
“I received reports yesterday (Wednesday) that some officers have deserted their areas of deployment but nobody said clearly what happened, that they left or where they have gone. They (the officers) did not talk to me about any request [to leave the area], so I don’t really know what caused this,” he said.
Wol said there were reports that some of the officers may have gone to the Northern Bahr el Ghazal capital, Aweil, while others said General Tap was still in the area, although it remains unclear why he was not at the headquarters.
Wol said attempts to reach Tap by phone had so far been unsuccessful and a team of officers had bee dispatched to talk to him personally.
Sudan Tribune has been unable to independently verify the claims and military sources in the capital, Juba, said there remain conflicting reports from the area.
“There are reports of some officers said to have deserted [the] areas of their deployment without reasons and their whereabouts is not clear,” a source confirmed to Sudan Tribune.
Another officer said reports had also been received that Brigadier General Gatpel had travelled to Wunyiik, where he held a series of meetings with soldiers and officers from Nuer community.
It’s understood that other officers who objected to the meetings had received assurances from their colleagues, including Gatpel, that the meetings were not tribal related.
“These meetings were illegal and when it was discovered, they said they wanted to brief the Nuer serving in the army in the area about the current situation [and] that it is not a tribal issue and that they should not fear,” the officer told Sudan Tribune on Wednesday.
“They also said they were conducting these meetings in Nuer language because [the] majority of the soldiers do not understand and speak Arabic or English,” he added.
There have been no official statements from the SPLA spokesperson or state authorities, although several legislators and serving cabinet ministers have claimed the officers defected.
“The desertion of these officers from areas of deployment without permission or knowledge of the division commander explains the whole thing, which we should not struggle to explain. It is a clear defection,” a local legislator said during an exclusive interview with Sudan Tribune on Thursday.
Military observers say local populations in Northern Bahr el Ghazal had started cultivating due to the early arrival of the rainy season and the security situation in the region remains relatively stable.
JUBA ADMINISTRATION COULD FALL
The defections, if verified, would be another setback to government forces fighting to contain a spiralling rebellion in the country, with some observers and independent analysts predicting it is only a matter of time before the Kiir administration falls.
“Looking at the current political and security situation and the way it is handled, you certainly find that it is a matter of time before this administration under president Salva Kiir could fall,” a Juba-based analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity told Sudan Tribune on Thursday.
“The current administration is stacked with hardliners – people who have war attitudes and believe in fighting as the only viable means to resolve differences, which is unachievable. Political differences are never resolved through the use of military means, but through peaceful dialogue,” he added.
Peace talks resumed this in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, amid growing international disquiet over the slow progress of negotiations and ongoing atrocities committed by both sides.
A January ceasefire deal signed by the warring parties following an earlier round of talks has failed to halt the violence on the ground.