South Sudan rebels split, sacking key warlord

Nairobi (AFP) - South Sudan's rebels have split from a key commander, a spokesman said Wednesday, risking a worsening of a civil war marked by atrocities and failing peace efforts.

Rebel chief Riek Machar, the country's former vice president, sacked powerful and influential warlord Peter Gadet, who was slapped with United Nations sanctions earlier this month.

Machar has replaced Gadet -- who has operated as a notorious militia chief for decades in the northern battleground state of Unity, swapping sides multiple times -- with another commander also blacklisted by the UN, Major General James Koang Chuol, according to official orders seen by AFP.

Rebel spokesman Mabior Garang told AFP it was "an ordinary reshuffle" but declined to give details.

- Child soldier recruitment -

But a diplomat monitoring stalled talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa -- where at least seven ceasefires have been agreed and then rapidly broken -- said it would make striking a lasting deal harder.

"Any further fracturing of opposition forces makes a paper agreement harder to be implemented on the ground," the diplomat said.

Gadet, who was the rebel side's deputy chief of staff for operations, was accused of shooting down a UN helicopter in August 2014 in which three Russian crew members were killed. He has denied the accusations.

He also led the April 2014 attack on the oil town of Bentiu, when hundreds were slaughtered, according to the UN.

Before South Sudan's independence, during the 1983-2005 north-south civil war, Gadet was backed by Khartoum to lead brutal clearances of oil zones in Unity. He later joined South Sudan's army, before switching to the rebel side.

Machar also promoted ex-government general Johnson Olony, accused by aid agencies of forcibly recruiting hundreds of child soldiers, to be commander of the Upper Nile region.

Civil war began in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy, Machar, of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings across the country that has split the poverty-stricken, landlocked nation along ethnic lines.

Over two dozen armed groups are involved in fighting characterised by shifting alliances, opportunism and historic grievances.

The war has been characterised by ethnic massacres and rape. Recent attacks have included castration, rape and tying children together before slitting their throats.

A report by Human Rights Watch on Wednesday documented how government troops crushed fleeing civilians with tanks, then reversed to check they had killed them, and carried out public gang rapes and burned people alive.

Some of those attacks were carried out by a government-aligned militia from the Bul Nuer people, the same tribe as Gadet.

The UN Security Council last month imposed sanctions on six commanders -- three from the government forces and three from the rebels.

Machar told AFP earlier this month that the three rebels named -- including Gadet -- were all "innocent."