KAMPALA, Uganda ? At least 24 South Sudanese soldiers have  been killed in clashes with a militia group that the southern government accuses  of subverting a disarmament campaign, a southern military official said on  Monday.

South Sudan army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said that an  additional 12 soldiers were wounded and 17 are still missing from the Aug. 22  ambush of 200 South Sudanese troops who had been sent to quell alleged rebel  activity in Jonglei State, the scene of a disarmament program that Human Rights  Watch criticizes as too violent.

The killing of South Sudanese troops has been condemned by  the U.N. mission in South Sudan, which said in a statement that the attack was  ?deliberately intended to undermine progress made in improving the security  environment and in forging inter-communal reconciliation in Jonglei State.?

Aguer said the rebels are led by an elusive militant named  Yau Yau and that they are backed by South Sudan?s northern neighbour Sudan in a  clandestine effort to keep Jonglei State lawless and ungovernable. Aguer said  the rebels are allied with the cattle-keeping Murle tribe, whose men are  resisting the government?s disarmament efforts. The soldiers were ambushed at a  place called Fhodo in Pibor County, he said, describing the rebels simply as a  ?Khartoum-supported militia.? Sudan has consistently denied such  allegations.

Relations between the two Sudans have been especially tense  since April, when the southern military forcibly took a disputed oil well in an  armed conflict that threatened to escalate into full-blown war between the  neighbours.

South Sudan became an independent state last year, but it  has outstanding border and oil-related issues with Sudan. The neighbours are  currently engaged in on-and-off negotiations mediated by the African Union.

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