A battle between South Sudan soldiers and rebels allegedly backed by neighbouring Sudan killed 163 people, most of them rebels, government officials said Thursday.
South Sudan's military spokesman, Col. Philip Aguer, said government forces also captured an airstrip in the town of Okello, which he claimed the rebels have been using to import most of their military supplies. Okello is in South Sudan's southeast Pibor County, where rebel leader David Yau Yau hails from.
"This airstrip has been used by Khartoum (Sudan) intelligence to transport and supply arms and ammunition to David Yau Yau. Some of the arms that were being dropped by Antanovs were captured, AK-47s. Some are broken, some are in good condition," Aguer said.
He said 143 rebels led by Yau Yau died in the battle Tuesday, and that 20 soldiers were killed and 70 wounded.
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 but is still dealing with violence inside its own borders. Military battles and fights between tribes kill dozens of people with alarming frequency. After decades of war with Sudan, the country is flooded with assault rifles.
Death tolls are almost impossible to verify without months of investigations, given how remote the country is and the complete lack of infrastructure. In late December 2011 and early January 2012, cattle raid attacks between tribes killed at least 600 people in Jonglei. A government disarmament campaign afterward collected more than 10,000 weapons.
Aguer said South Sudan's military will continue to "deal with the militia group" and that it would be a matter of time before Yau Yau's rebels are cleared from Pibor County.
South Sudan accuses Sudan of arming the rebellion to block South Sudan's plans to build an oil pipeline eastward through Ethiopia to a port in Djibouti.
A dispute with Sudan over oil transit fees led South Sudan to shut down its oil industry last year and look for alternative ways to transport its crude. The two governments recently reached an agreement that is supposed to restart South Sudanese exports through Sudan's oil pipelines.
Sudan has repeatedly denied having any ties to the rebels. It accuses South Sudan, in turn, of supporting rebels in Sudan's South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
Yau Yau first rebelled against South Sudan after he failed to win a parliamentary seat in the 2010 general elections. He accused the ruling party of rigging the vote. In 2011 he accepted an amnesty offer and was promoted to a general. But last year he fled to Sudan and started a rebellion in Pibor against South Sudan's government.