, JUBA, Feb 7 – Rebels fighting government troops in South Sudan said Thursday that 700 men from the government side have defected with all their equipment and were heading to join the rebels.
“Kiir’s army has suffered its biggest yet mass defection since the current conflict began on 15th December,” rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said in a statement.
Koang said the defectors “engineered an internal revolt, opened fire on loyalist soldiers and in the process killed the commanding officer with the rank of colonel.”
The men then “joined the rebellion with their equipment”, which included 16 trucks and pickups, some of them mounted with machine guns, the statement said.
There was no immediate independent confirmation of the claim.
Koang said the men mutinied in Lakes state on Wednesday while they were being sent to fight the rebels in Panyijar county in neighbouring Unity state.
They are now in the process of joining the rebels in Unity state, he said.
In a separate incident Wednesday government forces and allied militia attacked rebel defensive positions in the northern part of Jonglei state, close to the border with Upper Nile, Koang said.
He said the rebel forces repulsed the attack, killing 60 government soldiers in the process. There was no independent confirmation of this claim.
Fighting erupted in South Sudan in mid-December between two factions of the army — troops loyal to president Salva Kiir and those who supported his former deputy Riek Machar, himself a seasoned guerrilla fighter.
It quickly spread throughout the country as the rebels, under the nominal command of Machar, joined forces with ethnic militia.
A ceasefire agreement in January failed to put an end to the fighting, in which thousands have died and almost 900,000 been forced to flee their homes.