- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

JUBA, Sudan (AP) — Political leaders in Southern Sudan on Tuesday angrily accused Sudan‘s Khartoum-based government of arming a rebel leader they say killed more than 200 southerners last week, a charge that could increase north-south tensions as the south prepares for independence.

James Kok Ruea, minister of humanitarian affairs and disaster management, labeled last week’s attack by rebel leader George Athor a “massacre.”

Mr. Ruea said 201 southern civilians and security forces died during the attack in Jonglei state and that 10 died later in the hospital. He said nearly 160 of the dead were civilians, including children, the elderly and the internally displaced.

“They were chased into the river. I was the one who put them into a mass grave,” an emotional sounding Mr. Ruea told the Associated Press.

A southern military spokesman previously said 30 of Mr. Athor’s men also were killed, bringing the overall death toll to 241.

Pagan Amum, the secretary general of the Southern Peoples’ Liberation Movement, the political arm of Southern Sudan‘s ruling party, blamed the Khartoum government for arming and financing rebel leaders in the south. He said helicopters were used to transport weapons to Mr. Athor.

“As we emerge out of instability and war, there are forces that have been subjugating Southern Sudan,” Mr. Amum told a news conference. “These forces are still there. Today, armed groups are being financed, being armed, being sent to SouthernSudan from the north. You know that George Athor, who just caused the massacre in Sangak, his guns are coming from Khartoum.”

The accusations come one month after Southern Sudan voted to secede from northern Sudan, a split that is scheduled to occur in July. Southern Sudan and the Khartoum-based north ended a more than two-decade civil war in 2005 in which more than 2 million people died.

Leaders in Southern Sudan toned down accusations against Khartoum in the run-up to the Jan. 9-15 independence referendum. Sudan President Omar al-Bashir has sounded conciliatory in his acceptance of the south’s breakaway and said the north would help the south move forward.

Tuesday’s accusations from Mr. Amum have the potential to shatter that period of apparent good will.

The accused rebel leader, Mr. Athor, defected from his position in the southern army earlier this year to run for governor in Jonglei, the largest and most volatile of the south’s 10 states. After losing the April vote, Mr. Athor launched a revolt against the southern government along with an unknown number of his troops.

In September, Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir offered amnesty to Mr. Athor and several other men who had launched armed uprisings. On Jan. 5, four days before the referendum, Mr. Athor signed a cease-fire with the army in what then appeared to end one of the largest security threats to the south.

But last week his forces attacked the towns of Fangak and Dor in Jonglei state, breaking the cease-fire. Mr. Athor’s troops captured Fangak on Wednesday, and the fighting continued through Thursday until the southern military retook it, southern military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said last week.