By Denis Dumo
JUBA (Reuters) - At least nine people were killed in South Sudan over the weekend in renewed clashes between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those of his longtime rival Riek Machar, a spokesman for Machar said on Monday.
Machar, the former vice president, and his SPLM-IO group have been caught up with more than two years of on-and-off, ethnically charged fighting with supporters of Kiir.
Machar returned to the capital Juba in April after a shaky peace deal but left again last month when new clashes broke out.
Kiir replaced Machar as vice president last week with Taban Deng Gai, after Machar ignored Kiir's request to return to Juba, further deepening a split in Machar's SPLM-IO party.
Nyarji Jermlili Roman, the deputy spokesman for Machar, said the nine died on Sunday when they ambushed a vehicle carrying government troops in Lainya county in Central Equatorial state.
"The government forces attacked our position but our forces, the SPLA-IO, managed to gain back control of the area called Magila, which is between Wonduroba and Katigerre," Roman said.
Government military spokesman Lul Ruai Koang downplayed the weekend clashes, saying there was "small fighting" between the SPLA and Machar's forces.
"We engaged them and they tried to put up some resistance, but at the end we overcame them and they fled to different locations," Koang said.
Koang accused the SPLA-IO of shelling the government military positions in Nasir town in Upper Nile state, while the opposition claimed it was the SPLA that shelled their positions.
Nothing has been heard from Machar since and Kiir replaced him as vice president.
In a further sign of trouble for the peace deal, Lam Akol, head of the opposition Democratic Change group, stepped down from his post as agriculture minister that he assumed after Kiir named a new unity cabinet following the peace deal.
"One side has decided to abrogate (the peace deal)," Akol told a news conference in the capital of neighboring Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, on Monday.
The United States said over the weekend it had received "disturbing reports" of renewed violence in the south of the country and the United Nations is considering imposing an arms embargo.
(Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Tom Heneghan)