NAIROBI, Kenya — The new nation of South Sudan faced another armed challenge on Friday as a rebel group aligned with rival Sudan to the north threatened United Nations peacekeepers, accusing them of assisting the South Sudanese army in combat against them.
The U.N. mission denied that it had provided air and ground logistical support to soldiers in their fight against the rebels. It said it had only evacuated 60 civilians by helicopter who'd been wounded in clashes between the rebels and the South Sudanese army, known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army. The U.N. mission said its mandate to protect civilians required it to do so and that it would do so again in the future, if necessary.
"UNMISS has a clear legal mandate from the U.N. Security Council to support government efforts to protect the civilian population," U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique said in an email, referring to the United Nations mission in South Sudan by an acronym. "UNMISS remains committed to supporting the authorities with their efforts to protect the civilian population as mandated."
The South Sudanese also denied that the U.N. had taken a part in the fighting. "There is no U.N. (role) in these conflicts between the SPLA and these militias," Philip Aguer, the South Sudanese army spokesman, said in a phone interview from Juba, the South Sudanese capital.
The rebel group, which calls itself the South Sudan Liberation Army, is one of several militias that are battling the government of South Sudan, which became independent from Sudan in July. Despite hopes that South Sudan's independence would end decades of civil war, the months since have been marked by continued fighting between partisans of the South Sudanese government in Juba and the Sudanese government in Khartoum.
In a statement Thursday, the rebel South Sudan Liberation Army said it would consider U.N. peacekeepers "a legitimate target" if the U.N. troops "continue transporting the SPLA army to fight."
Taking sides in an internal conflict has numerous U.N. precedents: the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, assists the Congolese army in its campaign against a Hutu rebel group tied to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. But the mandate of the U.N. mission in South Sudan only gives it license to protect civilians.
The militia activity along new border between Sudan and South Sudan is part of what observers and diplomats fear could burgeon into a widening war between the two nations, whose historic enmity runs much deeper than the expected benefits they might reap from cooperating on oil production and border disputes.
One of the South Sudan Liberation Army's founders, Bapiny Minutuel, was a general in the Sudanese armed forces and lives in a house on the outskirts of Khartoum, where he met with a reporter from McClatchy in March. In that interview, he vowed to fight against the government of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir.
South Sudanese army spokesman Aguer said that the rebels had entered South Sudan from Sudan with support and arms from the Sudanese armed forces. They attacked Mayom village a week ago and were repulsed. A small splinter group attacked a police post in the town of Nhialdu on Monday, killing two policemen before being pushed back, Aguer said. The rebels claimed in a press statement that they had captured Nhialdu on Thursday after a three-day battle.
Aguer said the rebels are based in Sudanese territory. "They have no base in Unity state," he said, a reference to the state where the fighting is taking place.
For its part, the government in Khartoum accuses South Sudan of supporting rebellions on its side of the new border, in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. There, the recently renamed Sudan People's Liberation Army-North — former members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army who found themselves on the Sudan side of the new border in July — are battling Sudan government troops.
The South Sudanese army says it has cut off ties to those groups, but SPLA-North officials use Juba as a base, and SPLA-North officials privately admit that they receive assistance from sympathetic elements in the South Sudan government and military.
On Thursday, the Sudanese armed forces captured the rebel headquarters of Kurmuk in Blue Nile state. In South Kordofan, the rebels control much of the Nuba Mountains.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the rebel groups north of the new border complain that the U.N. is working with Sudanese government forces. Last month, the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North accused the U.N. of flying the governor of South Kordofan state to Taludi, a town besieged by the SPLA-North forces.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twtter.