February 28, 2012 / 4:23 PM / 8 years ago

South Sudan rebel group lays down arms

JUBA (Reuters) - A major South Sudanese rebel group with alleged links to the northern government in Khartoum has signed an amnesty deal two months after its leader was killed, South Sudan said on Tuesday.

George Athor founded the South Sudan Democratic Movement (SSDM) in 2010 after losing a regional election he said was rigged. The southern army said in December it had killed him.

Until his death, the group was considered the strongest of several militias challenging the central government of Africa’s youngest country, which is searching for stability so it can develop after decades of war with the north.

Government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin said the group, which he estimated was around 1,800 strong, had accepted an amnesty offered by President Salva Kiir when South Sudan gained independence from the north last July.

“They declared a ceasefire yesterday. It is our policy to try and absorb all these militia groups into a peace process instead of finding military solutions,” Benjamin said.

He said some of the rebel fighters would lay down their arms under the deal while others would be integrated into the national army.

Senior members of the armed group would assume positions in government, the head of the SSDM’s delegation James Nuot said.

“What we signed yesterday is a memorandum of understanding. We will share some positions in government and also at the state level,” Nuot told Reuters by telephone.

“We say enough is enough, so we will sit down as citizens of the land and enjoy the fruits of our country,” he said.

Athor fought alongside rebels who now dominate South Sudan’s government during a 22-year civil war with the north that ended with a peace agreement in 2005.

Later the southern leadership accused Khartoum of supporting the SSDM in an attempt to destabilize the south.

South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence last year, but decades of conflict and neglect have left it deeply under-developed.

The northern government denies accusations that it sponsors groups fighting the authorities in Juba, but security analyst Jonah Leff from the Small Arms Survey said there was clear evidence of ties between the SSDM and Khartoum.

“A lot of the weapons seem to match up with what are in Sudan Armed Forces stocks, so in that sense I’d say that the link is quite strong,” he said.

He warned that previous peace deals between the Juba government and rebel groups had not always been successful.

“I wouldn’t oversell it right now. Their coming to Juba is emblematic of their loss of power over the last nearly one year. Otherwise I don’t see why they would come into the fold.”

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