By Jason Patinkin
MOYO, Uganda (Reuters) - A South Sudanese military commander said he had defected with more than 200 soldiers to the country's largest rebel group, amid a showdown between President Salva Kiir and his former military chief.
Lieutenant Colonel Chan Garang, an ally of former army chief Paul Malong, defected to join the largest rebel group fighting Kiir, he said. All three men are ethnic Dinkas and any split within the powerful group could represent a threat to Kiir.
The four-year civil war has split the country into a patchwork of fiefdoms, created Africa's biggest refugee crisis in two decades and led to ethnic cleansing. A third of the 12 million-strong population has fled their homes and half are dependent on food aid.
In May, Kiir fired Malong, whom U.N. investigators accused of directing ethnic militias responsible for the rape, torture and murder of civilians. Malong, who is also on a U.S. sanctions list, briefly fled north but returned to the capital, where he has been under house arrest ever since.
Over the weekend, Kiir's troops surrounded Malong's house in Juba and unsuccessfully attempted to disarm his bodyguards. An armed standoff continues outside his house.
Garang is the first Malong loyalist to join the rebels. Garang said he defected because allies of Malong's were being badly treated, troops had not been paid for seven months and other tribes were being discriminated against.
"I left Juba because when are you are a supporter of Paul Malong, you will be arrested," Garang told Reuters via satellite phone.
"We are preparing our army so that we can launch an attack on Juba. Salva Kiir divided the tribes so we need him to go."
Garang told Reuters he took more than 200 soldiers with him, although a rebel press release put the number at 150. A photo provided by the rebels showed more than 30 armed men but their identities were unclear.
Army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said they were not aware of any defection from their ranks.
Malong was unreachable by phone, but his wife Lucy Ayak distanced her husband from the defected commander.
"[Garang] is not happy with the government and he has deserted. Why is he saying it is the issue of General Malong?" she asked Reuters.
South Sudan's war began in December 2013 between troops loyal to Kiir and rebels of former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer.
Oyet Nathaniel, a senior rebel official, told Reuters that Garang had brought 150 men with him and that anyone deciding to join them against Kiir is a "welcome development," regardless of their background.
There are several rebel groups, but none of them is well-funded or well-armed.
(This version of the story was refiled to remove repetition in second to last paragraph)
(Editing by Katharine Houreld and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)