|The south Sudan government has accused Khartoum of aiding the rebels to destabilise the region [EPA]
At least 82 people, including women and children, have been killed after a south Sudan rebel group attacked cattle herders, a southern army spokesperson has said.
Fighters under the leadership of Philip Bepan attacked southern troops of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in neighbouring Unity state on Saturday, Philip Aguer, SPLA spokesperson, told AFP news agency on Tuesday.
"They were chased away and went to Warrap state, where they attacked cattle camps on May 8, at a place called Balhom Weth. They killed 34 and wounded 45 civilians, including women and children," he said.
"On the same day they were returning with the looted cattle, they were ambushed by the cattle herders. Forty-eight of the fighters were killed and 48 of their new AK-47 rifles were taken."
This is the third major incidence of violence in as many months in this nation preparing for independence.
South Sudan, which is due to be recognised as an independent country in July, has been rocked by a spate of clashes between the SPLA and various armed groups since the largely peaceful vote in January that delivered a landslide for secession.
The wave of violence across the south, that has included clashes between rival ethnic groups over resources such as land and cattle, has left more than 1,000 people dead and forced at least 100,000 to flee their homes, according to UN figures.
Aguer said Bepan was working for Peter Gadet, the southern army general-turned-rebel leader who is based in oil-rich Unity state and whom the army accuses of working for and being supplied by its former civil war foes in the north.
'Human rights abuses'
Gadet's forces clashed with the SPLA last month, leaving more than 100 people dead and forcing oil workers out of the volatile area, causing production to drop.
A spokesperson for Gadet's group said more than 100 people had been killed in heavy clashes on Sunday, but gave a different account of his group's involvement in fighting, which he said took place in Unity state.
"The SPLA attacked our forces in the Mayom area ... There was very heavy fighting. We were able to control the area and fight them back," Bol Gatkouth, rebel spokesperson, said.
"About 94 SPLA soldiers died ... We had about 27 injured and lost 11 people," he added.
The rebel spokesperson admitted that Bepan was one of Gadet's senior commanders, who had also defected from the SPLA. But he rejected allegations that the militia had any links to Khartoum and denied its involvement in any fighting in Warrap state.
"These are communities fighting against each other," he said.
Gatkouth said had taken up arms against the Juba government because of rampant corruption in the impoverished south.
"The government has been in power for more than five years without delivering basic services ... Even in Warrap state, the governor has no office," he said.
He also accused the governor of Unity state, Taban Deng Gai, of human rights abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers and the theft of cattle and women from their community.
The government in turn says Khartoum is arming splinter militia groups like Gadet's to destabilise the south ahead of its independence, as it did during the devastating 1983-2005 war between north and south. Khartoum strongly rejects the charge.
"We have clear evidence" that Gadet's forces are being assisted by the north, said the SPLA's Aguer, adding that the rebels had clashed with SPLA troops on Monday, after they had returned to Unity state.
He was unable to give casualty figures from the latest fighting.