JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — The estimated 25,000 armed fighters whom the government said had been marching toward a state capital in what could have been a vicious military confrontation have mostly disbanded and returned home, a South Sudan government spokesman said Sunday.
Michael Makuei Lueth told The Associated Press that Nuer community leaders in Jonglei state met with the fighters over the last 48 hours and persuaded most to stand down. Only a "very few" refused to listen and are still gathering, said Lueth. An exact number was not known, he said.
"They have listened to the reasoning and they have accepted to go back," Lueth said. "Not all of them, of course. There are some who are resistant. It's not clear if they will advance. The number which is left is negligible and they may not be able to proceed."
Lueth on Saturday told a news conference that more than 25,000 Lou Nuer youth were marching toward Bor, the provincial capital of Jonglei state, raising the specter of a deadly battle with South Sudan troops, as well as potential attacks on the United Nations base there. Nuer youth in Akobo, Jonglei attacked a U.N. base earlier this month, killing three U.N. troops and some two dozen ethnic Dinkas.
South Sudan troops in Bor remain on "maximum alert" in case Nuer fighters try to attack, even with lower numbers. Bor briefly fell to rebel fighters earlier this month after major fighting broke out in the capital on Dec. 15, said Lueth.
The ethnic Nuer fighters are called the "White Army" by some, a reference to the white ash they spread on their skin to protect against insect bites.
The U.N. Sunday said it was "extremely concerned" about the reports of a mass movement by fighters and urged them to return home. The U.N. said it was conducting an aerial mission on Sunday to determine the number of fighters and their direction of travel.
The U.N. aerial reconnaissance flight spotted groups of armed youths about 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Bor in an area called Padiang, said U.N. spokesman Joe Contreras who said he did not immediately have an estimate of numbers or a direction of travel.