JUBA (AFP) - Rebels in South Sudan's Jonglei state have killed at least 24 soldiers, with several others missing or wounded, in the latest outbreak of violence in the troubled region, officials said Sunday.
The attack took place Thursday in the Pibor region of Jonglei after soldiers were sent to investigate sightings of rebel leader David Yau Yau, who split from South Sudan's army (SPLA) in April.
"There were 24 reported killed from the SPLA and 12 wounded, and there are about 17 missing," Jonglei governor Kuol Manyang told AFP, adding that it had taken time for the survivors to trek out from the remote area to report it.
"It was a small force that was sent to confirm that David Yau Yau was in the area... and then they were attacked by men in uniform joined by some armed civilians," Manyang said.
He suspected the civilians were made up of youths from the ethnic Murle group that live in Pibor County and to which Yau Yau belongs, and where he has reportedly been recruiting young people in recent weeks.
After losing out on a seat in April 2010 elections, Yau Yau rebelled against Juba's government, but accepted an amnesty in June 2011, a month before South Sudan won independence from Sudan after decades of civil war.
But Manyang dismissed any suggestion the rebels had attacked in revenge for alleged abuses in Pibor by the army, which has been carrying out disarmament in Jonglei following ethnic violence at the start of the year.
"It is not revenge, it is a rebellion," he said.
Over 600 people were massacred in Pibor after an 8,000-strong militia force went on the rampage in late December, according to the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), although local officials reported the figure to have been even higher.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday said it had reports of "soldiers shooting at civilians, and ill-treating them by beatings, tying them up with rope, and submerging their heads in water to extract information about the location of weapons".
UNMISS said Friday that security in Jonglei had "significantly improved", but also reported "alleged violations" by soldiers including killings, torture and rapes.
But Manyang said that stories of "atrocities" in Pibor were overblown.
"That is not confirmed. It hasn't been investigated. It could be the actions of individuals while there are 8,000 soldiers there," he said.
Jonglei was one of the areas hardest hit in Sudan's 1983-2005 north-south civil war, which ended in a peace deal that paved the way for the South's full independence.
But the new nation is awash with guns, while heavily armed communities that were once pitted against each other during Khartoum's rule remain rivals.