NAIROBI (Reuters) - Fighting between two rebel groups broke out on Sunday in South Sudan's southern Equatoria region, a rebel official said, adding another dangerous dimension to an increasingly fragmented conflict that has spawned many armed factions.

 

The incident on Sunday in Nyori in Central Equatoria state pitted rebel leader Riek Machar's SPLA-IO fighters against the National Salvation Front (NAS, led by General Thomas Cirillo, who formed his own faction after leaving the government in February, vowing to overthrow President Salva Kiir.

 

South Sudan's war has largely been fought between the forces of Kiir, a Dinka, and the SPLA-IO of former vice president Machar, a Nuer. The fighting has often been along ethnic lines.

 

SPLA-IO spokesman Lam Paul Gabriel told Reuters by phone that Cirillo's forces attacked an SPLA-IO reconnaissance team travelling near the base of a NAS general, John Kenyi Loburon, but were repulsed.

 

Loburon is a leading general in Central Equatoria who has battled Kiir's forces for years. On Friday he defected from Machar's side to join NAS. The fighting at Nyori is the first confirmed clash involving the NAS.

 

"The team went inside his base, and we cleared him, and we flushed him out of his base, and he is on the run at the moment," Gabriel said of Loburon. Two of Loburon's soldiers were wounded and 30 surrendered, he said.

Loburon is the latest of numerous SPLA-IO generals to defect to NAS, with many complaining of lack of logistical support from Machar and favouritism towards ethnic Nuer fighters.

NAS accused SPLA-IO fighters of Nuer ethnicity of carrying out a "planned attack" on Loburon's base.

"(Loburon's) force repulsed the attack twice and is now pursuing the remaining attackers," the group said in a statement sent to Reuters via WhatsApp.

SPLA-IO spokesman Gabriel denied that the reconnaissance team was only Nuer, saying it was a unit comprising different ethnicities under command of a local Equatorian brigadier.

Since December 2013, tens of thousands of people have died in South Sudan's war and up to a quarter of the population has been displaced from their homes. Nearly a million fled to Uganda and Congo in the past year to escape the fighting in Equatoria.

(Editing by George Obulutsa, Larry King)