KHARTOUM, Sudan — After weeks of scattered clashes that left hundreds dead, rebel militias in southern Sudan have united in a new armed movement against the young southern government, raising the prospect of civil war even before South Sudan declares independence in July.
"We have formed a new group. It is called the Southern Sudan Democratic Movement. We are calling the army the Southern Sudan Army," said renegade general George Athor, who is heading the rebel command, speaking earlier this week by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
The new coalition formally brings together five different armed militias spanning four of South Sudan's ten states, said the rebel leader. General Bapiny Monituel, who leads one of the five factions and whose forces have clashed heavily with the southern military in the past days, confirmed the emergence of the umbrella movement under Athor during an interview with McClatchy in the northern capital Khartoum.
The formation of the new rebel coalition confirms fears that the spreading patchwork of miniature insurgencies would coalesce under a single coordinated campaign against the southern military, posing an existential threat to the world's newest nation before it even officially comes on the scene.
The United States and other western countries had pushed hard for southern Sudan's January referendum on independence to proceed as promised, hoping the nation's partition would bring a final chapter to decades of war that has left southern Sudan one of the least developed places in the world, with two million dead.
Now it appears that the U.S.-backed peace process may succeed in ending the south's longstanding war against Sudan's northern government, but in the process will spin off an extremely fragile state wrought with violent internal divisions of its own.
The real strength of the new rebellion is still not known, but momentum is on its side. Defections from within the southern military are increasing almost daily, and the militias are gaining manpower on the ground as a series of messy military offensives by the southern army - the Sudan People's Liberation Army - has failed to deal a decisive blow.
So far, the southern government's main response to the rebellion has been to accuse the northern government of arming the dissidents, just like old times.
"This (new rebel movement) will not be a new thing for us because we already know that they are being coordinated by the military intelligence in Khartoum," said Philip Aguer, the SPLA spokesman. Athor called these accusations of northern support "big lies." Monituel also dismissed the claim, saying he only has enough guns for 3000 of his 5000 men and lacks even a vehicle on the ground.
Earlier this month, senior southern cabinet member Pagan Amum released internal northern military documents alleging that Athor was receiving arms from the north last year. But a number of independent experts have dismissed the documents as poor forgeries.
The disparate renegade commanders have many differences, but they seem united by a list of local and tribal grievances about the current southern leadership. These grievances date back to the previous war, when the SPLA - then the main southern group fighting against the northern government - fractured largely along tribal lines.
Then, the splinter commanders formed competing movements, but most ended up covertly aligning with the northern government to receive arms to fight the main SPLA force. In exchange, the breakaway factions helped clear their area for oil exploration.
After the 2005 peace deal between the SPLA and the northern government, which established regional self-rule leading up to this year's referendum, many chose to reintegrate into the SPLA, but others chose to join the northern military instead.
Monituel was one of the latter.
"It's better to be with the north than (with) a Dinka, because I know we cannot stay together with Dinka men for more than five days," he gave as an explanation for his decision at his home on the outskirts Khartoum, where his six years on a general's salary could explain the new shiny Hummer parked outside.
His comments underscored the deep tribal bitterness fueling the individual power plays.
Monituel is a Nuer, Nilotic rivals closely related to the Dinka, southern Sudan's dominant ethnic group. The Nuer comprised the majority of the breakaway fighters during the war, but many have since reconciled with the SPLA, whose founder and current leader is a Dinka.
Athor, a Dinka, lives on Nuer land, and most of his fighters are Nuer. Two other factions in the new rebel movement are from other marginalized tribal minorities, the Shilluk and the Murle.
According to James Kuong Ninrew, a Presbyterian pastor who heads the Nuer Peace Council, which works on conflict resolution and reconciliation, the rebellions do not currently have the broad support of community leaders on the ground, but he warned that the heavy-handed response risks worsening the situation.
"If they (the SPLA) don't handle this well, it will end up as tribal kind of clashes. And once it becomes tribal, people will join without knowing exactly what's the cause," said Ninrew.
He blamed the SPLA for failing to seriously pursue peaceful integration of the militias into the army.
"They (the SPLA) are not ready to absorb all of them," said Ninrew.
Athor - a former deputy chief of staff of the SPLA who rebelled after losing a gubernatorial race late last year, and who is believed to maintain strong connections and some inside support from within the SPLA - said he is ready to talk with the government.
"We are willing to negotiate very much, but I don't think they will accept. The SPLA only knows the sound of bullets," said Athor.
His demands include inclusion in the new constitutional review, representation in an interim government until new elections can be held, and integration of his forces into the SPLA.
Monituel said he sent his troops south in order to integrate into the SPLA, but now he is not interested after the SPLA instead attacked his positions. In the three days of ensuing fighting, the SPLA is believed to have suffered heavy losses, and his men held their ground.
Now, the emboldened warlord says he is preparing for war.
"They wanted to attack us. Now there is no solution except fighting," he said.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based human rights foundation.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.