A renegade general said he was weighing launching his new rebel force into South Sudanâ€˜s civil war, and called for President Salva Kiir to go, accusing him of spearheading ethnic violence that rights groups fear is slipping towards genocide.
Thomas Cirillo Swaka, known as Cirillo, resigned as deputy chief of staff of South Sudanâ€˜s military in February, citing rights abuses in a war that has split the worldâ€™s youngest nation, often along ethnic lines, since 2013.
Since then, the armyâ€™s most high-profile defector said he has put together a force of several thousand fighters, but declined to identify their exact plans or locations.
The scarred guerrilla veteran told Reuters that before he quit he had seen evidence of a government programme to recruit fighters and procure arms for militias from Kiirâ€™s Dinka ethnic group that included secret orders for weapons bypassing military supply lines.
The assertions from Cirillo, a member of the smaller Bari ethnic group, were dismissed by the presidency. â€œIt is very unfortunate that Cirillo is getting out of his mind. This is completely rubbish,â€ said presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny.
Reuters was unable to verify Cirilloâ€™s accusations independently. But if true, they reinforce rights groupsâ€™ assertions that the government is using ethnic militias, accusations that the government has strongly denied.
A senior U.N. rights official said in December parts of the conflict involved ethnic cleansing. Last month, Britain said some of the violence in the oil-producing state amounted to genocide.
â€œSalva Kiir must go and there should be a change,â€ Cirillo told Reuters from a hotel in Addis Ababa, capital of South Sudanâ€˜s neighbour Ethiopia, where he said he was living in exile while trying to unite the disparate rebel forces.
â€œIf Salva Kiir â€¦ tries to close all doors to peaceful solution â€¦ (the National Salvation Front) will have no other option to defend the people of South Sudan and to protect itself,â€ he added, referring to his rebel force.
He said his fighters were â€œfriendlyâ€ with the countryâ€™s biggest rebel force, known as the SPLA-In Opposition â€“ which confirmed it sees Cirillo as an ally.