JUBA, South Sudan — A faction of South Sudan's armed opposition said Saturday it had replaced its leader who is also the country's first vice president, a move which could lead to further turmoil following deadly clashes in the capital this month.
Riek Machar, who led a rebellion against President Salva Kiir in December 2013 but signed a peace deal last year, is being replaced as Kiir's deputy with Taban Deng, who acted as the rebels' chief negotiator during peace talks, said Machar's chief of staff, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth.
Deng will serve until Machar returns to the capital, Gatkuoth said. Machar fled Juba this month after Kiir's forces bombed his house during the clashes that killed hundreds of people. He is now in hiding, and Kiir this week set a deadline for him to return to Juba by Saturday afternoon.
But Nyarji Roman, a Machar spokesman who is also in hiding, said the replacement of Machar is a "conspiracy" to overthrow him and that Machar fired Deng on Friday for holding unilateral negotiations with Kiir. Deng has also rejected Machar's support for an African Union intervention force to deploy in Juba.
Supporters say Machar cannot safely return to Juba until such an outside force secures the city.
Government spokesman Michael Makuei said Kiir's side would have "no problem" if the opposition decided to replace Machar.
Deng led an opposition team which returned to Juba following the peace deal, paving the way for Machar's eventual return in April to take up his old post as Kiir's deputy in a national unity government.
But divisions within the opposition ranks grew into the current split. There is also strong opposition to Deng among powerful militia groups who fought on Kiir's side during the civil war in oil-rich Unity state, home to both Deng and Machar.