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Update: South Sudan rebel leader Gatluak Gai killed in mysterious circumstances

-* Update: SSLA rebels claim SPLA involved in Gatluak Gai’s murder

-* Update: South Sudan army (SPLA) deny involvement in Gatluak Gai’s killing

July 23, 2011 (JUBA) - A rebel leader in South Sudan’s Unity state was shot dead this morning in Koch county, only three days after he signed a peace deal with South Sudan army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

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Gatluak Gai (SMC)

Citizens and officials from the area told Sudan Tribune that Colonel Gatluak Gai was shot dead on Saturday morning along with some of his bodyguards after a group of people opened fire on him at Pakur where his forces have been temporarily assembled.

Phillip Aguer, the SPLA spokesperson confirmed Gatluak’s death, accusing the latter’s deputy, Marko Chuol Ruei for allegedly opening killing the former rebel leader after disagreement within the rebel camp.

"As you are aware, the government of Unity state entered into an agreement with Gatluak Gai and his forces leading to the signing of a peace agreement just three days ago. But two days later, differences began emerging within the rebel camps, whereby some soldiers led by Gatluak started disrespecting this peace deal," Aguer told Sudan Tribune by phone.

He added, "This morning, five senior commanders led by Marko Chuol Ruei went and tried to persuade their leader only for Gatluak’s loyal forces to fire at them. Immediately, there was exchange of fire between the two rebel camps and Gatluak plus three others were killed in the process."

Aguer, however, distanced the army’s involvement in the Saturday morning incident, saying the SPLA were assembled in one point simply waiting for the rebels, who days after the peace agreement, hinted on joining the southern army.

Col. Gatluak signed peace agreement this week with the SPLA which was facilitated by the Deputy Chief of General Staff, Lt. General Pieng Deng Majok, and was promised the rank of Lt. General in the SPLA.

Unity State government has been engaging in peace talks with Gai for the last six weeks. Gai defected from the SPLA and rebelled against South Sudan’s government after the announcement of election results in April last year.

Gai, is believed to have hoped to become a county commissioner - a position appointed by state governors - if independent candidate Angelina Teny beat the incumbent Taban Deng Gai to the gubernatorial seat in Bentiu.

After it was declared the Teny, the wife of South Sudan vice president Riek Machar, had lost Gai began a localised rebellion against the SPLA and the South Sudan government.

But a spokesman for the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), another rebel group active in Unity state, contradicted Aguer’s account of what happened, explaining that the rebel leader was lured to the peace process and attacked by the SPLA.

"Gatluak Gai was killed by the SPLA ... He signed a peace agreement and was ambushed by the same forces he signed the agreement with," Bol Gatkouth told AFP by phone.

"It was a way of luring him in so that they could catch him," he added.

Other sources in Unity state revealed that Gatluak expressed suspicion in the peace agreement with the SPLA when he was referred to as Colonel instead of Lt. General over radio announcement in Bentiu after the agreement contrary to the deal that confirmed him as Lt. General, a move that might have prompted the incidence against him.

Salva Kiir the president of South Sudan took the opportunity on July 9, when the country became independent as part of a 2005 North-South peace deal, to repeat his offer of an amnesty to all rebel groups in Africa’s 54th country.